Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

The Players 2014: The Fifty People Who Really Perform in Chicago

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In the foreground, Mike Nussbaum. Continuing in a clockwise circle, Nathan Allen, Charles Newell, Autumn Eckman and Nick Pupillo, Rae Gray and Usman Ally, Alejandro Cerrudo, Ann Filmer, Michael Mahler, Michael Halberstam, Dave Pasquesi, Ayako Kato. In the background, T.J. Jagodowski.

Once was the time, when it came to performing arts, that Chicago was a great place to come from. But thanks to the constant upward trajectory of our community, Chicago is now a great place to come from AND to return to. Every year we see more and more evidence of this, whether it’s the regular homecomings of the likes of Michael Shannon and David Cromer, the Chicago reorientation of international stars like Renee Fleming and Riccardo Muti or the burgeoning national reputations of Tracy Letts and Alejandro Cerrudo, we’ve got quite a perpetual show going on. That means of course, that culling a growing short-list of 300 or so down to the fifty folks who make up this year’s Players, is getting more painful. But we’re crying tears of joy as we do it. What follows are the fifty artists (as opposed to last year’s behind-the-scenesters) in dance, theater, comedy and opera who are making the greatest impact on Chicago stages right now.

Written by Zach Freeman, Brian Hieggelke and Sharon Hoyer, with Mark Roelof Eleveld, Hugh Iglarsh and Robert Eric Shoemaker. Photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

Pictured above: In the foreground, Mike Nussbaum. Continuing in a clockwise circle, Nathan Allen, Charles Newell, Autumn Eckman and Nick Pupillo, Rae Gray and Usman Ally, Alejandro Cerrudo, Ann Filmer, Michael Mahler, Michael Halberstam, Dave Pasquesi, Ayako Kato. In the background, T.J. Jagodowski.

All photos were taken at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago.

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Review: Stones In His Pockets/Northlight Theatre

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Photo: Karl Hugh

Photo: Karl Hugh

“Stones In His Pockets,” which opened last night at Northlight Theatre in Skokie, wants to fight against a prevailing American perception of Ireland as one big happy, pastoral farm colored with spirited jigs and baked potatoes. But director J.R. Sullivan’s production (and so recently after he staged a near-perfect Irish play, Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer” at The Den Theatre) does just the opposite.

Marie Jones’ boring, cliché-reliant play, which ran on Broadway in 2001, is set in contemporary Ireland, but until Charlie (Brian Vaughn) made mention of his former job in a video store, I was certain the period was the early twentieth century. For the aesthetic, most apparently in David Kay Mickelsen’s rucksack costumes and Scott Davis’ lodge-like set, is remarkably akin to the 1992 blockbuster, “Far and Away.” Further, opening “Stones In His Pockets” two days before St. Patrick’s Day, our nation’s (and especially our city’s) favorite indulgent excuse to guzzle down copious amounts of booze in the name of Irish cultural appreciation, obscures the piece’s message even more. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Whipping Man/Northlight Theatre

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

An onstage door left ajar has an unusual way of commanding an audience’s attention. Unspoken judgment accompanies gawking at the unattended entranceway as though a character from a different play might suddenly wander in and rudely unwrap a Jolly Rancher. The powerful wooden doors were left open a crack on Friday night at Northlight Theatre, while a realistic background rain poured. But in Matthew Lopez’s popular play, “The Whipping Man,” this is no mistake. The door is open for the Prophet Elijah.

Per the Passover tradition, a seat at the “table” is kept empty as well. Caleb (Derek Gaspar), Simon (Tim Edward Rhoze) and John (Sean Parris) sit around a repurposed crate, improvising a Seder in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. What could be more unexpected than a Civil War Seder? Even more shocking are the location and the participants. In the conflict-ravaged southern city of Richmond, Virginia, in a once opulent house pummeled by violence and looting (set by Jack Magaw), Caleb is a Confederate soldier, back at his all-but-empty home with a debilitating injury; John and Simon are his slaves, now free men, both of whom devoutly practice Judaism. It sounds like the setup to a historian’s “man walks into a bar” joke, but Lopez has written a visceral play of hardship, deep-rooted prejudice and prevailing strength of character.

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Northlight Theatre announces 2012-2013 season

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Northlight Theatre announces the final selection for its 2012-13 season, the World Premiere of Stella & Lou by Bruce Graham

Previously announced titles include Woody Sez—The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie, The Odd Couple, The Whipping Man and Stones in His Pockets

Northlight Theatre, under the direction of Artistic Director BJ Jones and Executive Director Timothy J. Evans, announces the final selection for its 2012-13 season: the World Premiere of Bruce Graham’s Stella & Lou, directed by BJ Jones. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Black Pearl Sings!/Northlight Theatre

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E. Faye Butler and Susie McMonagle/Photo: Starbelly Studios

During the Depression, as America experienced a drastic disillusionment with the idea of progress, a nostalgia set in for the pre-industrial past. The embodiment of that is Susannah (Susie McMonagle), an ambitious and tightly wound ethnomusicologist working for the Library of Congress, who encounters the gruff and skeptical Pearl (E. Faye Butler), an African-American prisoner originally from the Sea Islands who contains within herself a treasury of antebellum songs. She may even possess Susannah’s Holy Grail: pre-slavery songs brought over from Africa. Pearl is initially unimpressed by Susannah’s quest—“You be a white woman, and this is your dream?” Replies Susannah: “When a person dies, a library is lost.” Her primitive recording equipment is an attempt to stave off extinction and create a kind of immortality for herself and her informants. Read the rest of this entry »

The Players 2012: The Fifty People Who Really Perform in Chicago

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Darren Criss (#4) with Team StarKid

With our criteria shifted back to artistic accomplishment in theater, dance, comedy and opera this year, our task got infinitely tougher. Because while the number of performing venues grows at a steady rate, the increase in the number of noteworthy artists seems to grow exponentially. For everyone we name on the list below, we had to leave off five, an embarrassment of riches for Chicago. We made a conscious effort to introduce a meaningful number of new faces to the list this year; the necessary absences should not be construed as a loss of worthiness as a consequence. We often find trends when we do the research these lists require; this year we’re starting to see a more meaningful effort to redefine performance itself in the internet age, from the runaway success of StarKids, to the more calculated endeavors of Silk Road. So what defines a “player”? Consider it some complex stew of career achievement, recent “heat” and, in some cases, rising stardom.

Written by Zach Freeman, Brian Hieggelke, Sharon Hoyer and Dennis Polkow

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A “Wicked” Way of “Working”: Stephen Schwartz’s “Snapshots” of a forty-year career of Broadway songwriting

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By Dennis Polkow

For a guy who has been working as a high-profile Broadway composer and lyricist for “over forty years now—oh my God, can you believe it?” Stephen Schwartz is remarkably youthful both in appearance and attitude.

Sitting in the basement of Northlight Theatre in Skokie on an early Saturday morning clutching green tea prior to the final day of rehearsals before the first preview of his new work “Snapshots,” Schwartz exudes an enthusiasm and energy that is refreshing and contagious.

“It’s a new work, certainly, in that we keep tinkering and changing things,” he says, “but this isn’t the first version of the show that has been presented. We haven’t had an official ‘world premiere’ yet because I always feel that is the finished work at that point. ‘World premiere’ is a concept that is more important to theaters and venues than to writers.”  Read the rest of this entry »

Northlight Theatre announces 2011-2012 season

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Here’s the press release from Northlight:

Northlight Theatre announces the Broadway hit
[title of show]
as the final selection for the 2011-12 Season

Chicago, IL—Artistic Director BJ Jones and Executive Director Timothy J. Evans are proud to announce the final production of Northlight’s 2011-12 Season, [title of show], the Broadway musical sensation about…creating a Broadway musical sensation.  The production, with music and lyrics by Jeff Bowen and book by Hunter Bell, runs May 4 – June 10, 2012 and opens Friday, May 11, 2012.  Read the rest of this entry »

Northlight Theatre announces 2011-2012 season

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Here’s the press release from Northlight:

Northlight Theatre announces 2010-11 Season,
including a new musical by Stephen Schwartz;
the new play about Lunt and Fontanne, Ten Chimneys by Jeffrey Hatcher;
Alan Ayckbourn’s hit Season’s Greetings;
and E. Faye Butler in Black Pearl Sings

Chicago, IL—Artistic Director BJ Jones and Executive Director Timothy J. Evans are proud to announce the 2011-12 Northlight Season, which includes the new musical Snapshots from Stephen Schwartz, the creator of Wicked, Godspell, Pippin! and Working; last year’s smash holiday hit at London’s National Theatre, Alan Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings; Black Pearl Sings by Frank Higgins, featuring the incomparable E. Faye Butler; and a behind-the-scenes look at beloved Broadway legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne with Jeffrey Hatcher’s Ten Chimneys; and a fifth production to be announced.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Players 2011: The 50 people who really perform in Chicago

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As the economy slowly lifts us back to our feet and we look around, we see a remarkable sight: a performance industry in Chicago that survived the worst recession since the Great Depression wholly intact. Sure, we had a few brushes with death, and no doubt a few very small, very new theater companies threw in the towel, as they do even in good years, but unlike many other cities across the country, we’re in pretty good shape. How good? The League of Chicago Theatres issued a press release last week proclaiming our town as America’s theater leader, with more than 250 professional theaters, including four Regional Tony Award winners, and a combined annual budget of $250 million serving five million audience members. Add in our thriving dance community, a comedy scene that’s the envy of the nation and two world-class opera companies and you’d have to say we’re doing pretty damn good. But neither the economy nor any cultural organization is fully out of the water yet, and the dramatic uncertainty injected into the political sea by Mayor Daley’s decision to call it a day means Chicago’s performance community will need some steady hands at the wheel these next few years. Accordingly, for this edition of The Players, we’ve broadened our horizon and taken a closer-than-ever look at the individuals in charge of the financial fitness of our local institutions. Read the rest of this entry »