Chicago Stage Style

Find Chicago Stage Style on Facebook

Chicago Critic







Chicago Stage Style

The Best and Worst Chicago Theatre of 2011

Lawrence Bommer's 10 Best

Follies (Chicago Shakespeare Theater) Gary Griffin worked his patented Sondheim magic once again to explore almost every one of the 5,000 nuances and 1850 revelations in the master’s most “grown up” love musical—and that’s saying tons!

An Iliad (Court Theatre) Timothy Kane’s spellbinding storytelling of Homer’s first epic reminds us just how hard a hold those ancient Greek bards held on their utterly grateful audiences. A “holiday” show about something that never takes a holiday.

The Last Act of Lilka Kadison (Lookingglass) Magical storytelling—the sort of stuff that Lookingglass reflects best.  Its story of a childhood refracted into shards of souvenirs by memory was the perfect fusion of style and subject.

The Homosexuals (About Face Theatre) – Philip Dawkins’ new work charted a lot of liaisons back in time to show, not just how breakups build, but also how true friends are both good to and for each other.

The Big Meal (American Theater Company) Dan LeFranc delivered an enthralling look at how memories morph and how our personalities flow from such seminal experiences.  Never has sharing food with different people, across generations and despite changes, seemed so non-negotiably significant.  Nor has a person’s departure from the table felt so sad.

Burning Bluebeard (Neo-Futurists) This ingenious ensemble’s latest heartfelt homage to their fellow thespians paid a deeply moving tribute to the actors and victims of the 1903 Iroquois Theatre disaster.  Somehow they managed to be as playful as the original pantomime and as freighted with fear as a conflagration that, happily, Chicago has never managed to exceed and should never be allowed to forget.

Sweeney Todd (Drury Lane Oakbrook) The title role may have been neglected (I’ll spare any name)--but the riveting ensemble more than drove home Stephen Sondheim’s dollar-dreadful tour de vengeance.  City on fire, yes, and a theater that smoldered too.

The Madness of King George (Chicago Shakespeare Theater) Everything clicked in this totally engrossing historical drama where you slowly felt yourself as unhinged as the title character.

The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek (Eclipse) Naomi Wallace’s overly symbolic Depression-era depiction of a hopelessness that seems cruelly contemporary was raised to unexpected heights by a totally dedicated production.  It’s one more blessing from a theater that honors the written word by turning it into burning speech.

The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen (Strange Tree Theatre at Steppenwolf Garage) Too short a run for this devilishly clever look at one of the many crimes of the 20th century.  As the title implies, the monster wife-killer was seen from all sides. The result: a deliriously inventive storefront production worthy of Chicago theater at its most imaginative.


Lawrence Bommer's 10 Worst

The Trinity River Plays (Goodman Theatre) Regina Taylor’s self-indulgent, half-baked, overlong three-hour trilogy proved perfectly how much hell is other people and talk is no substitute for show.  Never has a play taken so long to prove so empty, despite a set so lavish you could live in it with a garden you wouldn’t even need to water.  Fine—but don’t clutter scenic make-believe with a suffering audience.

Peer Gynt (Polarity Theatre Ensemble) They may have Americanized Ibsen’s drama but this revival lost any sense of the momentum that pushes the title anti-hero into a well-deserved grave.

Mary (Goodman Theatre) We return to Dearborn and Lake Street for another sad low.  Thomas Bradshaw’s paltry play proved a nasty and sick joke on the audience, worthy of David Mamet at his most misanthropically reactionary.  More denunciation it doesn’t deserve.

Cyrano (The House Theatre of Chicago) How do you make Edmond de Rostand’s gorgeous epic a tedious, flat-footed waste of talent and a witless, overly hip and very un-romantic hodgepodge?  This theater did it with panache--and no one made a citizen’s arrest.

Chinglish (Goodman Theatre) As Broadway was soon to confirm, David Henry Hwang’s gimmicky new work has no heart.  Worse, it curdles with characters about whom you care a tad less than the weather report.

Penelope (Steppenwolf Theater Company) Middle-aged actors sagging in Speedos portrayed the used-up suitors to Odysseus’ ever-young wife/widow Penelope.  Enda Walsh’s play never got off the ground.  But then it takes place in the bottom of a swimming pool.  So that part felt just right.

A Walk in the Woods (TimeLine Theatre) A superb Chicago theater and an excellent director, Nick Bowling, who usually get things very right, went very wrong by changing the gender of an historical character in Russian-American nuclear arms negotiations.  The unsettling result--Janet Brooks’ sassy take on Katharine Hepburn—reduced Lee Blessing’s true-life story to a Hollywood mating comedy where nothing seemed at stake.  But, as if to make up for it, for the record this theater’s "The Front Page" and "The Pitmen Painters" were five-star triumphs in every way.

Stage Kiss (Goodman Theatre) Sarah Ruhl’s commissioned non-entity, appropriately presented in a suitably stupid staging by Jessica Thebus, was one more waste of time, space, talent and audience patience from Goodman Theatre.  One inch deep at its highest tide, this world premiere “romantic fantasy” announces breathlessly, like a third grader who just learned that dinosaurs could have eaten his parents, that thespians can’t always distinguish art from life. Wow!

White Noise (Royal George Theatre) An ambitious flop that was never as controversial as it pretended to be, this New Orleans import depicted a white supremacist band and a black hip hop act--both mismanaged by the same venal music producers.  A plague on all their houses!

Elizabeth Rex (Chicago Shakespeare Theater) A regrettable waste of good actors in an extremely contrived drama about Queen Elizabeth spending all night in a barn in order to be chewed out by a dying actor who had just played Beatrice.  Kevin Gudahl’s Shakespeare was utterly neglected, as if to remind us that this drama was NOT by Shakespeare.


Joe Stead's 10 Best

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey (Provision) A true holiday gift to be cherished for years to come, Tim Gregory and Michael Mahler collaborated on a new musical of hope, love and community that hit all the right notes.

The Sound of Music (Drury Lane Oakbrook) Rachel Rockwell's peerless and utterly captivating production is now the standard by which all future productions of this Rodgers & Hammerstein chestnut will be judged.

Mauritius (Artists Ensemble) What is the worth of a stamp, or the price of a great evening of theatre?  A chilling and thrilling evening of suspense, beautifully written and powerfully acted.

Into the Woods (Stage 48/Wishing Star) One of the nicest surprises of the year, a gleaming little gem of a storefront production that mined all the wit and depth of Sondheim and Lapine's musical forest.

The Detective's Wife (Writers) Barbara Robertson's riveting one-woman tour-de-force made for a taut and memorable mystery in the backroom of a Glencoe bookstore.

1776 (Wheaton Drama) A masterpiece by every definition of the word!  The musical that made us stop and consider the price of our freedom, this was community theatre at its most historic.

Heartbreak House (Writers) The combination of George Bernard Shaw's classic wit and satire and one of the best ensembles of the year made for a rich and rewarding case of Heartbreak.

42nd Street (Marriott) Come and meet those dancing feet...and did we ever!  Tammy Mader's electrifying choreography and a flawless cast highlighted this feel-good musical marvel.

All My Sons (Wheaton Drama) Larry Boller offered one of the best performances of the year in an Arthur Miller classic that was profoundly moving.  There was nothing amateurish with Wheaton Drama, again at the top of their game.

Wait Until Dark (Citadel) The classic cat-and-mouse thriller still has the power to scare an audience right out of their seats.  Citadel has earned a reputation for producing some of the finest theatre on the North Shore, and this production showed why.


Joe Stead's 10 Worst

Special Needs (Clockwise) The debut of this new company was in special need of a complete re-write. 

The Butler Didn't (Metropolis) An insipid farce that played to all the lowest common denominators.

The Conquest of the South Pole (Strawdog) Almost beyond comprehension, those real life adventurers feared nothing compared to dramatic oblivion.

Watership Down (Lifeline) The children's classic came to life, combining rabbits, survival and mysticism, and left at least one audience member dying to hop, hop, hop away.

Escape from the Haltsburg Boys Choir (The Ruckus) This ambitious and exhausting effort could barely be contained in the tiny side Project. 

Run For Your Wife (Bright Side) A warning to anyone attempting British accents: Do them well or don't do them at all.

Jesus Christ Superstar (Music on Stage) The musical and dramatic potential of Webber and Rice's rock opera was barely hinted at here.

The Metal Children (Next) Playwright Adam Rapp knows how to push buttons, he just didn't know how to turn out a good play this time.

Northwest Highway (Gift) A perfect play for anyone who wanted to feel completely depressed.

The Woman in Black (First Folio) Seriously lacking in suspense, this production was a real yawner.


Tyler Tidmore's 10 Best

Moby Dick (Building Stage) Blake Montgomery’s brain child was derived from Herman Melville’s literary classic.  The ensemble drove a new sense of originality to an old favorite, making “Moby Dick” an underground hit.

The Lion in Winter (Idle Muse) Not exactly Shakespeare, but Idle Muse’s historic epic rang many familiar bells.  Dave Skvarla, who portrayed King Henry II, gave a remarkable performance.

Some Enchanted Evening: The Songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein (Theo Ubique) Director Fred Anzevino found some of Chicago’s best musical talent, gave them some of the best musical material in existence, and the ending result was astonishing.

The Madness of King George (Chicago Shakespeare) Perfection redefined in the form of a play.  Every aspect of the production was incredible, from the colorful costumes to Harry Groener’s unforgettable performance as King George III.

The Count of Monte Cristo (Lifeline Theatre) Cheers to Lifeline for remounting a classic piece of literature in a brand new stage show.  The amount of detail involved in the production was flawless.

Red Light Winter (Mary Arrchie) Mary Arrchie rocked the city with their gritty tale of human nature, and the production stunned audiences with its brilliant storytelling and controlled staging.

Putting It Together (Porchlight) Stephen Sondheim would have stood in awe at the sight of Porchlight’s triumphant musical revue.  God knows I did. 

Three Days of Rain (Backstage Theatre) Richard Greenberg’s poetic piece about family generations was in perfect hands.

Rantoul and Die (American Blues) This play was everything American Blues is about: hard-hitting, average blue-collar Americans and the shadowed stories they have to tell.  Even though audiences left this one buzzing about a comedy, the dark-tempered plot radiated American Blues’ intentions.  

The Goat or Who is Sylvia (Remy Bumppo) James Bohnen’s last epic as the Artistic Director of Remy Bumppo.  Bohnen turned Albee’s socially awkward play into a masterpiece, and who could forget the climatic exchange between Nick Sandys and Annabel Armour.


Tyler Tidmore's 10 Worst

Violet (Bailiwick Chicago) The piece was never realistic to the setting’s time period of the 1960’s, and after about the twentieth mistake audiences gave up.

The Boy’s Room (Victory Gardens) The potential for excellence was present but somehow got lost in the cheesy sitcom atmosphere.

Romeo and Juliet (Babes with Blades) An all-female cast filled one of Shakespeare’s most familiar plays, but when everyone stepped on stage something failed to translate, leaving audiences in the dark.

Harold and Maude (Lincoln Square Theater) A young man in his twenties who enjoys faking his own death falls in love with an eighty year old woman, but she can’t love him back because she’s a Holocaust survivor.  Need I say more?

Bury the Dead (Promethean) Irving Shaw’s dramatic anti-war play ended up being a disaster that should have been buried instead of the dead.  Rough attempts at comedy and a clouded ambition from the cast gave the production very weak judgments.

Sweet Confinement (Sinnerman Ensemble) Choppy wordplay performed by an entirely miscast ensemble. This eighty minute failure dragged and dragged. Then when you thought it was over, they tricked you into watching another ten minute scene.

Samuel J. and K. (Steppenwolf) I greatly admire Steppenwolf’s program for young adults, but a play that supports alcohol as a fun thing was one of a series of bad decisions from the two characters.  I failed to understand why this play was performed.  Not to mention it was one of the most poorly written scripts on the market.

White Noise (Royal George Theatre) Chicago expected a wonder, but received a massive disappointment.  I saw more racism in this production than I have in all my years of growing up in the deep south.

I Am Montana (Mortar Theater Company) A bleak spoof on modern day corporate greed.  The characters never delivered on their goals, instead they stumbled around and complained for two hours.

Passing Strange (Bailiwick Chicago) What started out strong slowly slipped into a repeating paradox that never fulfilled any ambitions.  The cast seemed far too competitive for some spotlight, by the end of evening I was confused on who the story was about.