Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Best of 2015: The Best Musicals I Saw Onstage (plus Opera and Dance)

2015 was a rich and rewarding year for indulging my love of musical theater, and also finding delight in opera and dance presentations.

Broadway in Chicago offered its usual stellar slate of national tours of recent Broadway hits--Kinky Boots, A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, Beautiful--and shows heading to NYC, or hoping to: On Your Feet, Gotta Dance, First Wives Club.

I got to New York in late-March, where I caught a legendary re-revival of Cabaret, starring Alan Cumming and Sienna Miller, the initial Broadway staging of The Visit--starring Chita Rivera, and which I had followed since it premiered in Chicago in 2001--and the new Finding Neverland musical that I enjoyed greatly.

No, I didn't see the year's huge Broadway smash, Hamilton, nor the 2015 Best New Musical Tony Award winner, Fun Home, but am slated to in Chicago in 2016. (My Broadway in Chicago subscription cohort, Paolo, did see Hamilton in New York at my suggestion and shares that it was his favorite musical of the year.)

But along with the delight I found on Broadway and in the Loop, it was an abundance of astonishing work done in less glitzy environs that made this such a wonderful year to appreciate the joys of musical theater.

Chicago's excellent suburban and off-Loop self-producing theaters--Drury Lane Oakbrook, Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire, Paramount Theatre Aurora, Mercury Theater and others--mounted truly superlative renditions of Billy Elliot, Les Miserables, West Side Story, La Cage Aux Folles and other famed musicals, but also got into the game of developing new ones.

Though each could likely use a bit of refinement, Beaches at DRO, October Sky at Marriott, Shining Lives at Northlight in Skokie, Ride the Cyclone at Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Baritones Unbound at the Royal George were all the more impressive for being world premieres or recent works continuing their gestation locally, while Mercury's Chicago premiere of Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Musical was right on the money.

So too were outstanding small-house takes on The Producers, which NightBlue Performing Arts Company presented in repertory (i.e. rotating with another show) at Stage 773, and Next to Normal, which MadKap Productions wonderfully squeezed into the Skokie Theatre for just a few weekends.

Porchlight's production of the Sondheim on Sondheim revue was sublime, and along with a blissful Grant Park concert helmed by the composer's longtime conductor, a wonderful Northwestern University staging of Into the Woods and DRO's terrific West Side Story, my eternal regard for the genius songsmith was further enhanced.

As was my regard for the magnificent Mueller family from Evanston, which performed at a Sarah Siddons Society benefit gala honoring Jessie Mueller, a Tony winner as Carole King in Beautiful, a role I would see her sister Abby play on the national tour.

All told I saw 33 musicals, of which I rated 32 at least @@@1/2 (out of 5), with seven earning perfect @@@@@ scores, thirteen coming close with @@@@1/2 and eight more deserving @@@@. So only one musical failed to at least be sufficiently enjoyable: First Wives Club, which needs serious work but at least boasted some stellar old & new songs by Motown legends Holland-Dozier-Holland.

Hence, several shows that failed to crack my Top 11 merited abundant admiration and strong recommendations.

I also saw four excellent operas, two wonderful Joffrey ballets and the resplendent Ballet Folklorico traditional dance extravaganza in Mexico City, which I'll separate from the traditional musicals.

As I tried to reference above, the musicals I liked best in 2015 varied considerably in production size, level and stage in their life-cycle, with some performances seen officially being previews. So my rankings should not be taken as an apples-to-apples comparison, or arbiter of technical merit, but simply my unscientific gauge of what gave me the most pleasure--among many extraordinary theatrical experiences.

And now, finally, here are...

The Best Musicals I Saw On Stage in 2015:
(Note: My rankings are based on my enjoyment of the particular productions, but blend in the quality of the source material as well. All theaters in Chicago proper unless noted; in some cases the theatrical company is cited rather than venue. New shows are denoted with an *)

1. Cabaret - Studio 54, New York 
2. Billy Elliot - Drury Lane Oakbrook (my review)
3. Les Miserables - Paramount Theatre, Aurora (my review)
4. West Side Story - Drury Lane Oakbrook (my review)
5. Sondheim on Sondheim - Porchlight Theatre Co. (my review)
6. Beautiful - Oriental Theatre (my review)
7. The Visit - Lyceum Theatre, Broadway 
8. The Producers - NightBlue Performing Arts Co. (my review)
9. Finding Neverland* - Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, New York 
10. Baritones Unbound* - Royal George Theatre (my review)
11. Ride the Cyclone* - Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (my review)

Honorable Mention 

Carousel - Lyric Opera of Chicago (my review)
On Your Feet!* - Oriental Theatre (my review)
Next to Normal - Skokie Theatre (my review)
Mamma Mia! - Cadillac Palace (my review)
Into the Woods - Northwestern University 
Kinky Boots - Cadillac Palace (my review)
La Cage Aux Folles - Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire (my review)
Million Dollar Quartet - Apollo Theatre (my review)
Seussical - Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire (my review)
Shining Lives* - Northlight Theatre (my review)
Beaches* - Drury Lane Oakbrook (my review)
October Sky* - Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire (my review)
Pippin - Cadillac Palace 
A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder - Bank of America Theatre (my review)
A Christmas Story: The Musical - Paramount Theatre, Aurora (my review)
Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash - Mercury Theater (my review)
Anything Goes - Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire (my review)

Special Events 

1. Sarah Siddons Society Gala honoring Jessie Mueller - Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire (my review)
2. A Sondheim Celebration - Grant Park (my review)
3. Hooray for Hollywood - Park Ridge Senior Center


1. The Passenger - Lyric Opera of Chicago (my review)
2. The Merry Widow - Lyric Opera of Chicago (my review)
3. The Marriage of Figaro - Lyric Opera of Chicago (my review)
4. Wozzeck - Lyric Opera of Chicago (my review)


The Nutcracker - Joffrey Ballet (my review)
Unique Voices - Joffrey Ballet (my review)
Ballet Folklorico - Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City (my review)

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