Queen Elizabeth II pronounced the year 1992 “annus horribilis,” the Latin term for “horrible year,” and while on many fronts that phrase could easily be applied to 2016, the Chicago theater scene defied the global norm. This was a powerhouse season — ranging from that great “elephant in the room” (the smashing Chicago edition of “Hamilton,” the first post-Broadway company of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s mega-hit musical), to a vast, citywide celebration of the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, to a series of bravura one-person shows. I’d dub it an “annus mirabilis,” or “wonderful year.”
Here is my “top picks” list; it easily could have been twice as long:
“LEARNING CURVE” (Albany Park Theater Project): Staged on all three floors of a shuttered Chicago parochial school, this fully immersive work (created and performed by a cast of 33 youth artists, under the direction of APTP artists and Third Rail Projects of New York) led audiences of 40 people through a stunning sequence of scenes capturing the life of a richly diverse group of students as they navigated the classrooms, halls, library, locker room and hidden spaces of a Chicago high school. A wondrous, one-of-a-kind masterwork, the piece featured the unique alchemy of APTP’s extraordinarily skilled young performers, and evoked life in a Chicago high school in ways that were so real, yet so imaginative — so disturbing, and so life-confirming — that you wanted to grab hold of every politician and school bureaucrat and say: Experience this show, and then do something.”
“MAN IN THE RING” (Court Theatre): The latest entry into the ever-popular genre of “boxing drama,” this fearsome play by Michael Cristofer received a stellar world premiere at Court Theatre, where, under Charles Newell’s volcanic direction, the tale of the disgraced six-time world champion, Emile Griffith (played brilliantly in the prime of his career by Kamal Angelo Bolden, and in anguished old age by Allen Gilmore), came vividly and poignantly to life. I am no fan of the blood sport, but this haunted and haunting play was an exploration of love far more than violence. The ensemble cast moved through it as if in a dream.
“END OF THE RAINBOW” (Porchlight Music Theatre): Angela Ingersoll’s knockout performance as Judy Garland in “End of the Rainbow — the “play with music” about the last tragic months in the life of the legendary performer, left audiences gasping. Ingersoll, a huge talent, not only looked like a Garland clone, but captured every gesture and note of the iconic performer while at the same time making the role entirely her own. Jon Steinhagen’s portrayal of her piano accompanist also was ideal. As I’ve said many times, these Porchlight productions should be moved to the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place where they would enjoy great tourist traffic.
“TUG OF WAR” (Chicago Shakespeare Theater): Director Barbara Gaines’ vivid, two-part distillation of six Shakespeare history plays (some familiar, others rarely staged) explored foreign expansionism in its first installment, and the civil strife involved in claiming the British throne in the second. In the process, it brilliantly captured the insanity of nations locked in a state of perpetual war, both abroad and at home. And while some marathon projects can feel like endurance tests, Gaines’ high energy, effortlessly modern approach to the text was thrillingly realized by a formidably skilled company of actors and musicians who played a total of 100 roles and somehow remained standing at the end. The continual infusion of live music — from Bach and the blues, to contemporary pop and folk anthems — provided an additional electric charge.
“DRY LAND” (Rivendell Theatre Ensemble): This extraordinarily powerful, no-holds-barred play about abortion — written by Ruby Rae Spiegel while still a Yale undergrad — captured the fear and desperation of a tough but terrified teenage girl on a high school swim team, and the more disciplined but naive teammate she manipulates into helping her through an unwanted pregnancy. Its Midwest debut by Rivendell featured two young actresses — Bryce Gangel and Jessica Ervin — who gave such raw, fearless, excruciatingly soul-bearing performances that you forgot they were acting in this harrowing play.
“SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE” (Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook): The Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller songbook can easily serve as a musical guide to the sound of rock ‘n’ roll from the 1950s through the early ’60s. The pair forged their careers in New York, yet the Chicago sound was never far from their work, and it was the inspired idea of director Marcia Milgrom Dodge to give this popular revue a Chicago backdrop that evoked the glory days of Maxwell Street. The terrific onstage musicians, paired with a dynamite ensemble, made such classics as “Yakety Yak,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “Stand By Me” shake, rattle and roll in a new way.
“JESUS HOPPED THE ‘A’ TRAIN” (Eclipse Theatre): This riveting account of the fates of two inmates being held at New York’s infamous Riker’s Island prison — one of three productions in a season devoted to the plays of Stephen Adly Guirgis — was at turns explosive and heartbreaking. The fierce performances by D’Wayne Taylor and Johnathan Nieves as the accused, along with Anish Jethmalani’s razor-sharp direction, made this a memorable meditation on the meaning of truth, justice and faith.
“NORTHANGER ABBEY” (Lifeline Theatre): This sparkling jewel of a musical by George Howe, inspired by the Jane Austen novel of the same name, came with a ravishing score full of beautiful melodies and sophisticated lyrics, an ideally talented and diverse cast led by the lovely Stephanie Stockstill, and flawless direction by Elise Kauzlaric. The show, which should unquestionably enjoy a future life, was, like the work of Austen, marked by intelligence, wit and emotional truth as it looked at the power of art and the complexity of love, and at the painful transition from innocence to experience.
A TIE: “BAT BOY: THE MUSICAL” and “LONDON WALL” (Griffin Theatre): “Bat Boy,” a musical comedy/horror show about a half boy/half bat looked at our fear of “others,” and at what makes people truly civilized. Director Scott Weinstein’s production captured exactly the right balance between tabloid campiness and profoundly human emotion, with terrific performances by Henry McGinniss as the title character, and Tiffany Tatreau (now winning acclaim in the Off Broadway edition of “Ride the Cyclone”) as his love interest. “London Wall,” played to perfection, was a rare revival of John Van Druten’s superbly nuanced tale of office politics and romance in the early 1930s.
“THE GRAPES OF WRATH” (The Gift Theatre): John Steinbeck’s Joad family — the Depression era Dust Bowl migrants who left Oklahoma for the green fields of California — is an epic tale. But on a tiny storefront stage, director Erica Weiss’ Gift Theatre revival of Frank Galati’s stage adaptation of the classic proved that “epic” is all about the emotional punch of the work. The show featured standout turns by Kona N. Burks as Ma Joad and Jerre Dye as Jim Casey, the preacher-turned-activist.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: “The Body of an American” (Stage Left Theatre); “2666” ( Goodman Theatre); “War Paint” (Goodman Theatre); “King Charles II” (Chicago Shakespeare Theater); “Adding Machine Musical” (The Hypocrites); “West Side Story” and “The Little Mermaid” at Aurora’s Paramount Theatre; “East Texas Hot Links (Writers Theatre); “United Flight 232” (The House Theater of Chicago); Solo Celebration Series (Greenhouse Theater Center).
SOME GREAT PERFORMANCES: Deserving of special praise for their work this past year are: Alex Weisman (actor and puppet master extraordinaire in “Hand of God,” at Victory Gardens); Brett Schneider (for his remarkable sleight-of-hand performance in “The Magic Play” at Goodman Theatre), and Bri Sudia (for her true and hilarious rendering of “One Hundred Easy Ways (to lose a man),” in the Goodman production of “Wonderful Town.”