For those hoping to catch up on their theatergoing during the holiday fortnight, Reader critics offer their recommendations on shows running into the new year. Check listings for addresses, phone numbers, schedules, and prices, including special New Year's Eve packages.
Growing up on Chicago's north side in the years before World War II, teenage hoofer Bob Fosse would ditch classes at Amundsen High School to catch stars like Bill "Bojangles" Robinson at the Oriental Theatre downtown--now the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre. This glamorously renovated vaudeville house is an apt location for Fosse, a sizzlingly performed, thoughtfully conceived tribute to the late, great choreographer. This anthology uses famous and unfamiliar numbers from stage and big- and small-screen shows such as Sweet Charity, Cabaret, and Dancin' to probe Fosse's complex psyche even as it pays homage to his work's brilliant craftsmanship and provocative sexuality....Also honoring a legendary Chicago-bred talent is Northlight Theatre's thrilling Dinah Was at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. E. Faye Butler's powerhouse performance as Dinah Washington explores the jazz diva's complex personality and bold struggle against racism while celebrating the vibrant vocal style that made her the "queen of the blues" in the 1940s and '50s. --Albert Williams
Chances to see the plays of Israeli writer Joshua Sobol in Chicago are rare, so we're lucky that Famous Door Theatre Company has extended Ghetto, Sobol's brilliant, sobering look at a Jewish theater company struggling to survive in the Vilnius ghetto just before Nazi liquidation in 1943. The production makes several missteps before attaining greatness, and key cast members have been replaced since the opening. But if you're sick to death of Dickens and Disney, you won't find more substance in any theater this holiday season.
British playwright Terry Johnson's Hysteria, running at Steppenwolf Theatre under the direction of John Malkovich, examines Sigmund Freud's troublesome legacy by making the psychoanalyst the harried hero of one of his own dreams--a bizarre hallucination in which Freud's dying days are disrupted by, among others, the surrealist painter Salvador Dali and the disturbed daughter of one of Freud's former patients. Part frantic farce and part suspense drama, Hysteria is somewhat flawed but impressively risky and ambitious, a good alternative to fluffy holiday fare for thoughtful viewers....Also at Steppenwolf is the much lighter studio production Her Name Was Danger, a Lookingglass Theatre Company rock 'n' roll spoof of Modesty Blaise, Emma Peel, and other spy-thriller heroines of the 1960s.
Since the American middle class has been taught to express its individuality through mass conformity, it's no wonder Blue Man Group is such a hit. Even the stodgiest square gets 90 minutes of prefab hipness handed to him, from the goofy sing-alongs to the group recitations to the de rigueur toilet paper headgear. But the show's sophisticated concept, ingenious acting, and occasional bouts of paranoid cynicism take it far beyond mere fashionable pose; this long-running postapocalyptic vaudeville at the Briar Street Theatre offers sly commentary on the same middle-class values that allow it to prosper.
Two long-running comedy hits at the Ivanhoe Theater show no sign of slowing down. Late Nite Catechism is Maripat Donovan and Vicki Quade's irreverent but never blasphemous look at the American Catholic experience--their interactive approach alternates between severity and sentiment to prove that truth is funnier than fiction. As the nun instructing a classroom full of students, Mary McHale displays alacrity, agility, and accuracy. And Will Kern's Hellcab, the Famous Door hit running steadily since 1992, now features Tim O'Malley as a harried Chicago taxi driver who encounters the full spectrum of humanity on a chilly Christmas Eve--the good, the bad, the ugly, the petty, the pathetic, and the unexpectedly compassionate. Freshly directed by Patrick New, the show has lost none of its tough-tender charm.
--Mary Shen Barnidge
This is the seventh and final year for the Free Associates' annual Tennessee Williams spoof A Dysfunctional Dixie Christmas--and your last chance to see the crack ensemble's spot-on, very funny dissection of the playwright's cliches. The show runs at the Ivanhoe Theater in rep with BS, the Free Associates' long-running, exceptionally clever parody of ER and other medical melodramas.
Every year the folks at ImprovOlympic ring in the new year with a big improv bash. On the bill for the theater and training center's "End of the World" New Year's Eve event are two of the city's best improv-based shows. Baby Wants Candy and The Armando Diaz Experience, Theatrical Movement & Hootenanny exemplify different approaches to long-form improv: the tight Baby Wants Candy ensemble creates a fully improvised one-act musical from a single audience suggestion while Armando Diaz takes a much looser approach--a rotating group of ImprovOlympians creates a vivid, multilayered, mostly nonmusical one-act using an audience suggestion and the designated narrator's improvised monologues.
In honor of Noel Coward's centenary, Writers' Theatre Chicago is presenting Fallen Angels, his 1923 trifle about two wives with adulterous itches--the kind of inspired silliness that skilled actors can spin into gold. Michael Halberstam's staging makes the most of the considerable comic talents of Annabel Armour, Linda Kimbrough, and Karen Janes Woditsch, who create screwball characters with very human, very funny appetites and failings.
Though suburban theater used to be synonymous with safe, bland fare not especially well conceived or performed, there are now at least two well-staged, finely produced, nicely acted musicals in the burbs. Director Ray Frewen's simple, intelligent take on Brigadoon, currently playing at Drury Lane Oakbrook and starring the talented, instantly likable Cory Goodrich, uncovers the hidden depths in Lerner and Loewe's sweet love story. And at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit's Phantom, based on Gaston Leroux's suspense novel The Phantom of the Opera, proves how much more there is to this tale than was dreamt of in Andrew Lloyd Webber's philosophy.
Profiles Theatre's Popcorn revolves around an action-film director's worst nightmare: his home is invaded by two tabloid-educated serial killers who know nothing of cinematic irony and postmodern aesthetics but sure do love the director's violence-steeped movies. The energy never flags for an instant in this hit production of Ben Elton's hilarious satire on Hollywood and media-influenced justice in America. Some shows get sloppy over a long run, but Popcorn is tighter now than it was on opening night.
--Mary Shen Barnidge
Apple Tree Theatre's take on the Caribbean musical Once on This Island evokes a happy, sunny place--a tonic against winter. Peter Amster's engaging production of this early work by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens bubbles with delightful performances, notably Karla Latrice Beard and Anthony Pierre Christopher as the lovers whose destinies the island gods mock.
With its gleefully moronic dialogue and potty humor, Low Sodium Entertainment's half-scripted, half-improvised romp Gameshow! is a great send-up of the TV genre. Unlike its network brethren, this show--running late nights at Stage Left Theatre--doesn't offer cash prizes, but who wants to be a millionaire anyway?
ETA Creative Arts Foundation's Get Ready bursts with good humor and glows with Joe Plummer's doo-wop ballads as it pays tribute to the R & B veterans of the 50s and 60s. Plummer's glorious guy-group songs would have been hits 30 years ago--and they charm today. Phillip Edward Van Lear directs with appropriate affection.
The Royal George Theatre Center cabaret's long-running Forever Plaid both lampoons the squeaky-clean image and sounds of white-boy doo-wop groups of the pre-Beatles 60s and manages to revel in their music. The slim tale--about a Four Lads/Lettermen-type quartet that returns from the afterlife for the ultimate comeback concert--is an excuse for the talented cast's campy yet lovely renditions of such hits as "Three Coins in the Fountain" and "Cry."...Also at the Royal George, the Noble Fool Theater Company's partly improvised Flanagan's Wake invites viewers to interact with the participants at an Irish wake.
Under the direction of Henry Godinez, the Goodman Theatre's production of A Christmas Carol never wallows in feel-good nostalgia. Setting Dickens's universal lesson against a backdrop of still rampant social ills, this is a show to engage audiences of all faiths....Another perennial, Bailiwick Repertory's The Christmas Schooner, relates the saga of a Great Lakes captain who braves winter storms to bring Christmas trees to Chicago. Based in history, John Reeger and Julie Shannon's musical is a parable of the American heroic spirit, with charismatic Phil Gigante leading a brilliant cast.
--Mary Shen Barnidge
Those disinclined to celebrate Christmas for religious reasons might be interested in a couple of shows by guys named Sherman. For viewers who want a dash of schmaltz, there's Victory Gardens Theater's Door to Door, James Sherman's sweet, mildly sentimental, heartfelt look at three generations of Jewish mothers in Chicago. And for those who just want a laugh, the Apollo Theater's musical revue Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh! collects some of the better songs by that bard of the Jewish-American experience (circa 1960 to 1968), Allan Sherman.
Roadworks Productions' The SantaLand Diaries, running at Victory Gardens Theater, returns for a second year of antiyule satire. These two sardonic comic monologues, adapted by Joe Mantello from stories by David Sedaris, provide rich opportunities for Laura T. Fisher and David Cromer to skewer the season.
Thought-provoking children's fare is business as usual for Lifeline Theatre.
But the company's current kids' show, My Father's Dragon (with matinee performances through the holidays), is something special. James Sie's clever adaptation of Ruth Stiles Gannett's 1948 children's book is as edifying as it is entertaining--a feel-good story that's also a feast for the senses.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Liz Lauren/Jennifer Girard/Michael Brosilow.