Top 12 Shows of 2014

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Here are the Top 12 Plays of 2014 as compiled by Tom Williams and Jacob Davis.

Enjoy!

By Tom Williams

12. Airline Highway

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Airline Highway

Everybody in the cast gives an excellent performance, providing depth to the characters who can only get so much dialogue. Many of the conversations are overlapping, contributing to the notion it’s more important to get a feel for these people than to know all their specifics. Their pasts are pretty much what you’d expect, anyway.

11.  Churchill

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Creating and performing a one person show is a daunting task but when the subject is Winston Churchill (1974 – 1965), the task becomes near impossible! But in the hands of  veteran actor/director/playwright Ronald Keaton it is not only doable but amazingly effective. Not only does Keaton bare a resemblance to Churchill and he has his vocal style, accent and speech patterns down pat. He also has his movements, gestures and mannerisms reflecting accurately including the cigar and bowler hat that he seemed to be channeling Churchill on stage!

10.  The Playboy of the Western World

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The Playboy of The Western World is terrific classical Irish theatre from an important playwright marvelously filled with loads of heart and skill. This Raven theatre production is one of the best plays produced in Chicago this season..Every actor in town needs to see this marvelous show to learn who to project and articulate while sporting an authentic accent; how to land comedy and to bravely perform stage combat. I believe doing Irish plays takes many of the same skill sets as does doing Shakespeare.

9. On The Town

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In it first production since a brief touring production staring Nancy Walker in 1944, On The Town has never been mounted in Chicago until Terry James and David H. Bell and Alex Sanchez tackled this fabulous material. Bernstein’s unparalleled score brought contemporary jazz/swing sounds into a modern musical allowing Jerome Robbins to create  high energy dances that captured the intensity of three sailors trying to have fun in New York City during their 24 hour leave during wartime.

8. Henry V

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Henry V

Henry V is a worthy, world class production that exemplifies fantastic acting by a troupe of committed players who know and respect Shakespeare’s  cannon. It is so refreshing to witness skilled players at the top of their art delivering the such well crafted material. This is not a stuffy history work,rather a consuming, articulate and thrilling production.

7. The Last Ship

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The Last Ship is a major achievement. It is big, bold and melodic; emotionally driven and truthful to the workers. Sting’s score is,  indeed, his opus, as it blends styles with loads of heart. David Zim’s masculine set and Christopher Akerland’s lighting enhance the atmosphere of the shipbuilding town marvelously.

6. Hedda Gabler

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Hedda Gabler, by “the father of realism” is Henrik Ibsen’s 1891 drama. It is a tour de force  performance by Kate Fry as the neurotic, spoiled and totally devious Hedda Tesman (formerly Gabler). Hedda Gabler is the story of Ibsen’s ultimate socialite, the daughter of a Norwegian aristocratic General.

5. 42nd Street

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The Paramount Theatre production looks terrific with the neon-inspired art deco sets and lighting (sets by Kevin Depinet and lighting by Greg Hofmann) demonstrates their superbly detailed production values.   Doug Peck’s tuneful music direction, Theresa Ham’s colorful 30’s costumes and, of course, the fabulous smoothy dancing by the cast. I’ve not seen a smarter tap ensemble led by Tyler Hanes and Laura Savage with Chicago favorites youthful tappers.

4. Brigadoon

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The masterful  ethnic dances  and the rich Scottish brogues together with wonderful harmonies gave a lilt to Loewe’s score.  Jordan Brown nailed the sensual ballad “Come to Me, Bend to Me” and Rod Thomas added cynical quips while the villagers exuded warmth charm and genuine goodness worthy of a fable. But the real winner here are the songs that propel the myth as a search for innocence with the power of love. You’ll leave the theatre humming the tunes that will satisfy your appetite for classic musicals

3. Ball At The Savoy

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What makes this operetta standout is the fact that Ball At The Savoy is a combination of German operetta with a large infusion of jazz inspired music hall and Broadway musical. Jazz , Broadway musical, and operetta patrons have much to enjoy here. Ball At The Savoy passes the ‘Jerry Herman’ test – it has hummable, take-home songs like the haunting “Toujour l’ amour.” Ball At the Savoy is in its American premier  at Stage 773.

2. Porgy and Bess

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Porgy and Bess truthfully depicts difficulties of rural Southern Black life as it vividly portrays the drinking, drug use, gambling, and sexual attacks as part of life. It also depicts the raising spirit and religious fever of the community.We understand their frailty, their strength, and their humanity as we empathize with these simple people. We do all this to the  gorgeous  soothing melodic music of George Gershwin.

1. Pericles

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Ben Carlson brings humanity and dignity to Pericles. While the character as written is undistinctive, Carlson transitions from a brash, ambitious young man, to a battered, frightened, but still resourceful outsider, to a responsible but haggard captain, to a broken creature in need of a miracle all in one show. Kevin Gudahl as King Simonides and Lisa Berry as Thaisa use their scenes to welcome Pericles into a loving family, allowing us to vicariously feel his relief and joy.

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Top 12 Shows (since August 2014)

by Jacob Davis

12. A Christmas Memory -The New Musical

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The play makes no apologies about being a Christmas story and delivers the sentiment its intended audiences want. But it isn’t as sugary as parents might expect; this is after all, the story of a man looking back on how he lost the only home he felt comfortable in. It’s because of the talent of all involved, but especially Klein and Scrofano, that I was willing to see this world through a child’s appreciative eyes. Families looking for quality holiday fare would do well to make the trip out to Munster this winter.

11. The Wild Party

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The Wild Party, arguably Bailiwick Chicago Theater’s finest achievement to date, proves that a talented, dedicated and fully committed cast of non-Equity players can carry a musical to superb heights. Their ensemble work here is first class that all involved should be extremely proud of. This production is one of the finest non-Equity musicals mounted on a Chicago stage in years!

10. A Bright Room Called Day

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This show was a bold choice for such a young company, and they do it justice. So soon after the mid-term elections and right before the expected beginning of the presidential campaign, the story raises many questions the audience will be worrying about. When is compromise necessary, and when is it harmful? How do you know when you should flee, or stay? Are the other people in your camp really on your side? Are your friends? This play is an excellent choice for anyone concerned with messy, confusing politics, and if you’re not, it will show you why you should be.

9.  Titanic

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This musical is a powerful, well sung and brilliantly staged production that proves that Chicago’s rich talent pool of non-Equity performers can mount a fabulous musical through sheer dedication to craft. If you have never seen Titanic, the musical, get to Theater Wit to take the voyage with the terrific artists at Griffin Theatre as they plunge into delivering a most powerful ode to the tragedy of the Titanic. You’ll be impressed with their stage craft and the rousing score.

8. Sweeney Todd

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The story of the demon barber of Fleet Street revolves around Sweeney Todd’s (David Girolmo) obsessive desire to seek revenge on the man responsible for exiling him, destroying his wife, and stealing his child. While awaiting his opportunity for retribution, he and the entrepreneurial Mrs. Lovett (fabulous comic timing from Rebecca Finnegan revisiting her Jeff Award performance as Mrs. Lovett), become partners in a horrific venture in which Sweeney Todd provides Mrs. Lovett with the pivotal ingredient for her meat pies after giving his customers the “closest shave they will ever get.”

7. The Humans

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In this 90 minute one act, the six person cast each have their say with Keith Kupferer and Hanna Dworkin anchoring the work. The celebration of Thanksgiving leads to a boiling point as the underlying tension explodes into truths that threaten the Blakes’ core. Take the journey with these folks and you’ll quickly become immersed into memories of your family’s past holidays. That journey will jar you as much as this outstanding play does.  The power of live theatre to transport us into examining ourselves is effectively accomplished here. I now know why Stepper Karam titled his well written drama The Humans.

6. The Vandal

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You’ve probably seen advertisements for a number of campy, gory, comedic horror shows this Halloween season. Steep Theatre’s newest production is something quite different. The Vandal is humorous, but uses its spooky story as an opportunity to explore deeper emotions.

5. The Nutcracker

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At only two hours, The Nutcracker is an excellent length for families hoping to expose their children to high culture within a realm they can appreciate. The music, spectacle, and dancing are always high-spirited and will fill you with delight. From fist-shaking mice to a bizarre giant puppet, this world fires the imagination with good humor. The children in the cast are disciplined and make a real contribution to the show. But the adults will make you proud to have supported them.

4. Mary Poppins

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The magic and mystic of Mary Poppins (is she myth or an angel from heaven?) is deftly played by Emily Rohm while Matt Crowle’s Bert guides us through the journey of the Banks family’s awakening with panache. We are totally engrossed and richly rewarded having spent a few hours in Poppins’s world where anything can happen if you take a spoonful of sugar. Mary Poppins is the best musical never to have won a Tony Award!

3. Burning Bluebeard

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At one point the actors, in their characters as actors, pray that the illusion will hold, and they will be seen only as their false identities. At another they awkwardly recount how critics panned Mr. Bluebeard, but the December 30 matinee sold out anyway. It’s the sort of double-layered meaning Torrence’s script delights in, but there’s no need for them to fear. Burning Bluebeard is tasteful, convincing, and a fitting homage to what attracts audiences to theatre. It’s a reminder that the performers you see from the artistically risky pieces like this one to those playing in the for-profit shows Broadway in Chicago hosts at the Oriental today have pure intentions: to tell a story that will make you glad or open your heart. Burning Bluebeard does both.

2. Pericles

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Ben Carlson brings humanity and dignity to Pericles. While the character as written is undistinctive, Carlson transitions from a brash, ambitious young man, to a battered, frightened, but still resourceful outsider, to a responsible but haggard captain, to a broken creature in need of a miracle all in one show. Kevin Gudahl as King Simonides and Lisa Berry as Thaisa use their scenes to welcome Pericles into a loving family, allowing us to vicariously feel his relief and joy.

1. All My Sons

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I must admit that as a young reviewer, I didn’t really expect an Arthur Miller play to captivate me. Sure, I respected Miller for improving theatre’s artistic credibility and integrating Henrik Ibsen’s mid-career naturalism into American play writing, but I thought we’d moved beyond that a long time ago. I was wrong. All My Sons is still relevant, and Raven Theatre’s production has the same emotional power as the original.