Chicago is host to a wealth of musical theater, much of it among the best theater in Chicago. In the downtown theater district, Broadway in Chicago's historic palaces house touring productions along with a steady stream of pre-Broadway tryouts, while the Goodman Theatre regularly stages splashy revivals and new works alike. Suburban venues like Drury Lane and the Marriott Theatre trade off between polished productions of the classics and premiering new works. Elsewhere in the city, you can find tuners new and old on every scale, down to the scrappiest storefront theaters. Here's our guide to the shows to see now and in the coming weeks.
Musicals in Chicago
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 musical, a semitruthy account of English tutor Anna Leonowens’s assignment to teach the children of the King of Siam in the mid-19th century, gets more uncomfortable every time I see it. And perhaps because the current touring production in residence at the Oriental Theatre (really) is my third encounter with The King and I in as many years (following Marriott Theatre’s production in late 2014 and the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s staging last spring), I’m ready to suggest this is a show whose time has come and gone. It’s not that this production, based on Bartlett Sher’s Tony-winning Lincoln Center Theater staging, doesn’t have lovely elements. Laura Michelle Kelly, of Broadway’s Finding Neverland and Mary Poppins, makes for an engaging, intelligent Anna, and brings a rich, penetrating voice to much-loved tunes like “Getting to Know You” and “Hello, Young Lovers.” And Jose Llana's King is often very funny, though one could argue whether that’s the ideal trait to emphasize. And Rodgers & Hammerstein's score, which also includes the likes of “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “Something Wonderful,” remains a pleasure. But the colonialist underpinnings of the story, with its exoticized depiction of Siamese culture presented in implicit contrast to “the modern nations of the world” and its idealizing of Western norms, becomes harder to swallow on every viewing. Hammerstein even lightly acknowledges this bias when the King’s wives sing, “They feel so sentimenta
Adapted from E.L. Doctorow’s sprawling turn-of-the-century novel, Ragtime arrived on Broadway in 1998 in a lavish production that managed to be dinged for both bloat and brutal efficiency. Despite winning Tony Awards for both Terrence McNally’s effective book and Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s score, the show lost the best musical award to the more inventively ostentatious The Lion King. A 2009 Broadway revival earned some credit for finding greater balance in the material. But for a truly rousing reassessment, let me point you to Griffin Theatre Company’s intimately, intricately truthful new production at Wicker Park’s Den Theatre. Scott Weinstein, inarguably at this point one of the most visionary young directors on the rise in the city, stages the musical in the round, with a multi-tiered set by William Boles that allows the large cast to move among the audience. This is one major step toward making Ragtime’s three main, intertwined storylines, as well as its many offshoots, feel equally accessible. Another is the total rethinking of the music: Orchestrator Matt Deitchman has rewritten Flaherty’s score for two onstage pianos and a woodwind, bolstered here and there by several multi-instrumentalist cast members. The pianos are manned by co-music directors Jermaine Hill and Ellen Morris—though three or four actors also end up taking the keys at various points—and the upright is mobilized, rolling out into the playing space to serve as the instrument of Harlem musician
Upon entering the treasure-filled Cave of Wonders in search of some old lamp, Aladdin, the street urchin with a heart of gold, is momentarily more dazzled by the gold surrounding him. Just take a few of these coins, he suggests to those waiting outside, and you could buy all the lamps you want. Of course, it’s the lamp that holds the magic—both for the purposes of the story and for this musical adaptation of the Disney animated film; on stage, as on screen, it’s the Genie rather than the title character that really livens up the joint. But you get the sense in watching this endeavor, which launches its first national tour with a five-month stand in Chicago, that Disney has thrown an entire cave’s worth of coins into making a dazzling, diabolically entertaining spectacle. No expense, and no pun, has been spared. The familiar story, of course, takes place in Agrabah, a fictional city where “even the poor people are fabulous,” as the Genie tells us in the opening number, “Arabian Nights.” Enter Aladdin (squeaky-clean Adam Jacobs, reprising his role from the Broadway production), poor of purse but fabulous of pecs. After a chance encounter in the marketplace with spunky Princess Jasmine (Isabelle McCalla), doing the old royal-disguised-as-a-commoner bit to escape her father’s pressure to pick a suitor, Aladdin uses his newfound Genie (Anthony Murphy, charming and sly in the eager-to-please entertainer vein) to pass himself off as a prince. Most of the best-loved songs from th
Let’s not mince words, since we’ve already spilled so many of them: Hamilton, writer-composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda’s biography of Alexander Hamilton as refracted through a hip-hop, pop and R&B lens, is a sprawling, stunning, singular achievement. By filtering the story of the American Experiment’s beginning into modern, meticulously rhymed vernacular and populating the stage with performers of color to play the likes of Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson and Madison, Miranda and his regular collaborators (director Thomas Kail, music supervisor Alex Lacamoire and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler) make the founding fathers feel fresh and, miraculously, human. RECOMMENDED: Our complete guide to Hamilton Chicago Weeks out from the country’s naming its 45th president, Hamilton’s new Chicago company arrives to remind us our democracy has always been messy, political, personal, and worth fighting for. Kail and Blankenbuehler fill designer David Korins’s spare set—which suggests that, like the country, it’s still under construction—with movement as thrilling and dense as Miranda’s lyrics. (The few moments of stillness are also used to great counter effect.) The nearly all-new Chicago cast (ensemble member Emmy Raver-Lampman is the sole transfer) easily lives up to the originals while finding their own new moments and shades. Miguel Cervantes is a rather more grounded Hamilton than the more frenetic Miranda, who originated the role, but Cervantes conveys the man’s vital, fatal
Perhaps inevitably, expert Broadway parodist Gerard Alessandrini has applied his Forbidden Broadway treatment to the Hamilton juggernaut, with often incisive results. Unlike Hamilton prime, which Alessandrini’s Spamilton now follows into an open Chicago run, the spoof has cast all of its actors locally. And lo and behold, the likes of Eric Andrew Lewis, Donterrio Johnson and Michelle Lauto live up to the demands of dense, Lin-Manuel Miranda–style lyrics. (On opening night, Spamilton’s actors did so with much of Hamilton’s Chicago cast in the house, who seemed duly appreciative and impressed.) Spamilton puts Miranda himself (as embodied by the talented young actor Yando Lopez) at the center of a Hamilton-esque narrative about an up-and-comer determined to save Broadway with his writing. The parody is often spot-on in terms of Miranda’s musical idiom and his show’s highly identifiable aesthetic, and gets in some juicy digs at Miranda’s media ubiquity and publications’ oversaturated, click-hungry coverage of the Hamilton phenomenon (which, uh, guilty?). Along the way, Alessandrini sneaks in some of his favorite subjects from outside the Hamilton universe, with cameos by his takes on Liza Minnelli and Stephen Sondheim and some gags at the expense of other recent Broadway shows; I’m not sure how well Shuffle Along references will land in Chicago, but then Forbidden Broadway’s target audience tends to be self-selecting superfans. Alessandrini also trots out some of his longtime h
There’s a curious diffuseness that marks this 1998 musical, based on the true case of Leo Frank, a Brooklyn Jew living in Georgia in the early 20th century, where he was accused of the murder of a young girl in the employ of the pencil factory Frank managed. Frank steadfastly maintained his innocence through his conviction in a trial that garnered national attention for the anti-Semitism and xenophobia that marked it. Playwright Alfred Uhry, an Atlanta native whose work often focuses on the Jewish community in the South, and composer Jason Robert Brown, making his Broadway debut, earned Tony Awards for their book and score, but Parade lost the best musical award to the dance revue Fosse. Gary Griffin’s new production at Writers Theatre, like every production of Parade I’ve seen, doesn’t manage to solve the structural issue that keeps the audience at a remove in spite of the show’s component pleasures. Uhry and Brown’s telling puts weight on the effect of the accusation, trial and appeals on the relationship between Leo and his wife, Georgia native Lucille. It’s through this hardship, the show suggests, that Leo and Lucille truly begin to understand one another. But Uhry, particularly, goes out of his way to also show us a parade of context about the setting, spending precious capital on putting us in the mindset of Atlantans 50 years after the Civil War, detailing the political machinations behind the trial and suggesting the state of race relations in 1913. (As a Southerne
ABC 7 Chicago’s Janet Davies hosts Broadway in Chicago's annual Summer Concert at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Performances will include cast members and songs from current shows and the upcoming season, including Aladdin, Beautiful—The Carole King Musical, Escape to Margaritaville, Les Misérables, Love Never Dies, Motown the Musical, School of Rock and Wicked.
Marriott Theatre stages the Chicago area’s first look at the 2014 Broadway musical, adapted by Marsha Norman and Jason Robert Brown from the Robert James Waller novel (and the Clint Eastwood–Meryl Streep movie) about an affair between a traveling photographer and an Iowa housewife. Nick Bowling directs.
Based on the Oscar-winning short film of the same name (which also inspired the teen suicide prevention nonprofit The Trevor Project), this new musical premieres at Writers Theatre with eyes on Broadway and commercial producers attached. It follows an imaginative teenage boy and Diana Ross superfan in the early ’80s as he comes to terms with being gay. The writers are Dan Collins and Julianne Wick Davis; Marc Bruni (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) directs.
This musical spoof about down-and-out Elizabethan playwrights inventing musical theater in the shadow of Shakespeare, written by Broadway neophytes Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell, became a surprise hit of the 2014–15 season. It arrives at the Oriental on its first national tour.
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