Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Best of 2014: The Best Musicals I Saw Onstage

I unabashedly love musicals and, even in a year in which I didn't see any in New York or London, I caught 25 musical theater productions live on stage.

That many ranged from first-rate to fantastic isn't surprising, given that Chicago routinely gets high-profile pre-Broadway runs--e.g. The Last Ship--and pretty much any fresh-from-Broadway national tours, such as with Newsies.

But beyond outstanding touring musicals--and a phenomenal updated rendition of The Phantom of the Opera helped me like that show more than I ever have, while trekking to Milwaukee for The Lion King reiterated my love for that brilliant work--the Chicago area is rich in regional producing theaters that specialize in musicals.

I have long been a fan of Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire, where I saw the rarely staged On the Town this year, and Drury Lane Oakbrook, which continues to do impressive work including a Broadway-caliber-except-for-the-size Les Misérables. I also enjoy Theatre at the Center in Munster, IN, Aurora's Paramount Theatre and Evanston's Light Opera Works (productions held in Evanston's Cahn Auditorium) even though I didn't get to anything by the latter two over the past 12 month. 

Chicago's Mercury Theater has also gotten into the self-producing game in recent years, and I loved their self-made take on the great Avenue Q in 2014.

The Lion King
Chicago Shakespeare Theater has long run a side business as the Chicago Sondheim Theater, and I've seen and loved all of director Gary Griffin's scintillating showcases of the sublime composer/lyricist.

This year, CST and Griffin gave us two such pieces: a remarkable Gypsy (Sondheim only wrote lyrics on this classic, whose music is by Jule Styne) and an intriguing Road Show, an oft-revised work that I had seen at the Goodman Theatre in 2003--when it was titled Bounce.

The Goodman will occasionally stage one musical per season--the theater was actually the first home of The Million Dollar Quartet--and this summer produced a revised version of Lerner & Loewe's Brigadoon, which was largely quite lovely.

And the Lyric Opera of Chicago is in the midst of a glorious string of once-yearly Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals. After loving their superb rendition of Oklahoma in 2013, I liked The Sound of Music there just as much if not more. 

This year, I finally experienced the acclaimed small size, big production feel of Theo Ubique in Rodgers Park with their terrific version of Sondheim's Passion, and I even saw a remarkable college production of Cabaret at Northwestern.

So not only was 2014 another great year for musicals in the environs of Chicago, but I'm glad to have seen and liked so many across a variety of venues.

The late Bernie Yvon, with Kelly Anne Clark, in
The Beverly Hillbillies Musical at Theatre at the Center
Unfortunately, it was also a year of tragedy on the local theater scene. On September 6, two veteran actors, Bernie Yvon and Molly Glynn, died in separate accidents. I had only seen Glynn in a few shows, including The Odd Couple (not a musical) at Northlight in late 2013, but Yvon had long been one of my favorite local musical theater performers.

If my personal database is accurate, I caught Yvon in 8 shows at various theaters since 2002, including in the world premiere of The Beverly Hillbillies Musical at Theatre at the Center just this summer.

Tragically, Yvon died in a car accident in Munster on his way to rehearsals for another TATC musical, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

I would see that piece a couple weeks after Yvon's death, and though I didn't love the show, I tried to pay warm tribute to him and everyone involved in my review.

Though they don't have much direct connection to me or, to my knowledge, musicals, I'll also note here the passing of longtime Chicago director and theater professor Sheldon Patinkin, as well as the multifaceted Mike Nichols, who was part of the origins of Second City in Chicago in the 1950s.

While not lessening the tragedies, I got a real sense of what is meant by "The show must go on"--especially in the case of Yvon thanks to a small memorial I attended at Theater at the Center after the opening of the show he was to have been in.

And so, in 2014, my admiration for those who sing & dance (and direct & choreograph, design sets, sew costumes, etc.) for a living--and the entire close-knit Chicago theater community--was only furthered.

For few things in life can make me feel as ebullient, and emotionally enriched, as a truly sensational stage musical.

So I not only rank but give heartfelt thanks for...

The Best Musicals I Saw On Stage in 2014:

Gypsy - Chicago Shakespeare Theater
(Note: My rankings are based on my enjoyment of the particular productions, but blend in the quality of the source material as well. New shows are denoted with an *)

1. Gypsy - Chicago Shakespeare Theater (my review)

2. The Phantom of the Opera - Bank of America Theater (Broadway in Chicago) (my review) 

3. The Sound of Music - Lyric Opera of Chicago (my review)

4. Les Misérables - Drury Lane Oakbrook (my review)

5. The Last Ship* - Bank of America Theater (Broadway in Chicago) (my review)

6. The Lion King - The Milwaukee Theatre (National Tour) (my review)

Les Miserables - Drury Lane Oakbrook
7. The Wizard of Oz - Cadillac Palace (Broadway in Chicago) (my review)

8. Avenue Q - Mercury Theatre (my review)

9. Annie - Cadillac Palace (Broadway in Chicago) (my review)

10. Newsies - Oriental Theatre (Broadway in Chicago) (my review)

Honorable Mention (in order of preference)

Passion - Theo Ubique (my review)

Brigadoon - Goodman Theatre (my review)

Road Show - Chicago Shakespeare Theater (my review)

The Beverly Hillbillies Musical* - Theatre at the Center, Munster (my review)

The Last Ship - Broadway in Chicago
Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella - Cadillac Palace (my review)

On the Town - Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire (my review)

Motown - Oriental Theatre (Broadway in Chicago) (my review)

Special Mention

Cabaret - Ethel M. Barber Theatre, Northwestern University
A college production that was truly first-rate.

Rocky: the Musical - Winter Garden Theatre, New York (Not seen by me)
I was only in New York for about 4 hours in March amid flights into and out of two city airports. If not for luggage, I likely would have tried to see Rocky, but couldn't. But later, three friends were heading to the Big Apple and asked for my theater recommendations; in an overlong piece of advice, the stage adaptation of Rocky was one of my top suggestions--and the one they heeded. Though it would close just days after they saw it in August, all three friends reported really liking it.

No comments: