Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Players 2016: The Fifty People Who Really Perform for Chicago

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“Out with the old, in with the new,” is one of the many well-intentioned platitudes you hear frequently this time of year. Personally, I find that type of sharp-turn resolution a bit difficult to manage. As I see it, change is fluid; the past informs the present and portends the future. Newness grows organically out of the well-tilled soil of history. This also happens to be the way I think about Chicago’s arts community. The open terrain currently being transformed by our promising young upstarts would not exist had the heavy lifters of previous years not worked to cultivate it. And so it is in this space that we honor both parties by highlighting the artists who have served as great beacons and those whose stars are just beginning to rise. What follows is the current crop of our city’s fifty most moving, most shaking, most dream-making Players in theater, dance, comedy and opera.  Make a resolution you actually want to keep: check them out! (Kevin Greene)

Players was written by Zach Freeman, Kevin Greene, Sharon Hoyer, Aaron Hunt and Loy Webb
Photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Capriccio/Lyric Opera of Chicago

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Loaded with the star power of soprano Renée Fleming, propelled by music director and conductor Sir Andrew Davis’ unique understanding of the score, and set in the 1920’s framework of John Cox’s controversial production, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s revisitation of Richard Strauss’ “conversation piece” “Capriccio” must be considered in light of its weight as an event that crosses boundaries and begs alliances. Critically argued both for—for its fresh sense of comedy and perception of character—and against as mocking not merely the subject matter but the composer himself, Cox’s direction (here realized by Peter McClintock) was last seen at Lyric twenty years ago with Sir Andrew himself at the orchestral helm; the final jewel in this outing’s headband is provided by Fleming, known to many non-opera goers as a singer of popular song, jazz and the National Anthem.

No newcomer to the role, or to this production itself, Fleming sounds as fresh of voice as ever, and never provokes her instrument to war against the unforgiving acoustics of the hall. If the fake fur around the sleeves of her first gown left both Fleming and her fellows searching for her hands, and if its turquoise shade clashed biliously with the greens of some set pieces, Fleming looked every inch the girlish, early widowed wisp, moving gracefully about the somewhat confusing set, with its period-appropriate furnishings scattered in front of the drawing-room backdrop of a different century. A natural actor and giving scene partner, Fleming never stinted the text. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Don Giovanni/Lyric Opera

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Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Photo: Todd Rosenberg


As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago decades ago, a friend suggested I take a class called “The Political Plays and Prefaces of George Bernard Shaw” because it was an easy A and, as a bonus, a great course. Not only did it live up to its billing, but it sparked my nascent devotion to the works of Shaw and a deep respect for his intellect. And one of the things I never forgot from our classroom discussion of “Man and Superman” was that Shaw considered Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” the greatest work of art ever created. No small praise from one of the greatest playwrights in history.

For no good reason, it took me decades to see the work myself, allowing that superlative to age untested in my memory, albeit leavened by the more measured expectations that a lifetime of arts consumption affords. Nevertheless, when Lyric Opera announced it as this year’s season opener, Shaw’s enthusiasm was the first thing I thought about. The second was that a director whose work I’ve admired at the Goodman Theatre where he’s artistic director, Robert Falls, was at the helm, ensuring an interpretation unlikely to get stuck in an unduly reverential treatment, like a musty old museum relic.

And so it does not. Falls’ work at the Goodman always seems to “go big” in both design and ambition; here on the Lyric’s far larger stage and cavernous auditorium, he has found an arena where his scale generates not a spark of friction of conflict with its confines. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Sound of Music/Lyric Opera

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Billy Zane and Jenn Gambatese/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Billy Zane and Jenn Gambatese/Photo: Todd Rosenberg


The second entry in Lyric Opera’s five-year traversal of the blockbuster entries of the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon fares far better than last year’s inaugural entry “Oklahoma!, ” to be sure. Leaving aside questions of why Lyric, already struggling to present a wide diversity of operatic repertoire, should be focusing its limited resources on populist musical theater that is already widely performed and available in other local venues—to say nothing of why Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first work should be followed by their last—the fact remains that the company’s new production of “The Sound of Music” is one of the best new productions of any work done by Lyric in a long while.

To begin with, Broadway veteran Jenn Gambatese as Maria places her own stamp on a role that was originally created for Mary Martin, by then an elderly music-theater matron whose iconic status seeped over into her portrayal. She also managed to sidestep the immense shadow of the all-too-practically-perfect-in-every-way movie incarnation of Julie Andrews in her first film after winning an Oscar as another nanny, “Mary Poppins.”

Gambatese plays Maria as what she was, a naïve young girl who is going through the motions of attempting to find meaning in an empty life, whether fitting in at a convent, or in a household of children barely much older and sometimes much wiser, than she is. Most Marias make a journey of self-discovery, but Gambatese keeps the character’s naiveté out front throughout the show, adding refreshing credibility to the proceedings. She is no opera singer, to be sure, but no matter: she has a delightful show voice that fits Maria’s character and songs like a glove. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: La clemenza di Tito/Lyric Opera

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Matthew Polenzani and Joyce DiDonato/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Matthew Polenzani and Joyce DiDonato/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Mozart’s penultimate opera, “La clemenza di Tito” (“The Clemency of Titus”), is finally coming into its own. A work overflowing with the mature Mozart at his very best, “clemenza” was completed and premiered less than three months before his death at the height of his creative genius.

“The Magic Flute,” which was soon to follow, would become one of the most performed operas in the repertoire, but not “clemenza.” Like the “Requiem” that would also soon follow but which the composer left incomplete due to his sudden death at the age of thirty-five, “clemenza” is not 100 percent Mozart, but for a very different reason: Mozart took the work as a commission and farmed out the recitative sections to a student.  This, taken with the fact that the form of the work is the older, more serious and sterile opera seria meant that “clemenza” never quite found a place in the standard repertory the way other Mozart operas had, despite its many glorious musical moments.

The advent of a modern performing edition (the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe) and the efforts of the late French director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle began to restore the opera’s reputation. Indeed, it was not until 1989 that Lyric presented “clemenza” for the first time, and it has taken a quarter of a century for the work to make its return. Scottish director Sir David McVicar, whose imaginative new staging of Dvorak’s “Rusalka” is running in repertory with his version of “clemenza” that is being staged by his assistant Marie Lambert, has set out to streamline the action of the opera, which concerns an assassination plot against the Roman emperor Titus with ancillary relationships. McVicar has managed to remain true to the music while making a more cohesive narrative. Read the rest of this entry »

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: Die Fledermaus/Lyric Opera

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Bo Skovhus and Daniela Fally

Bo Skovhus and Daniela Fally


In Vienna, and all over the world, the New Year rings in with productions of Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus.” How appropriate, then, that Lyric Opera is reviving this most popular of operettas for the holidays. The current production comes off as authentically Viennese, directed with great nuance by E. Loren Meeker that bubbles with as much sparkling effervescence as the champagne whose virtues are so celebrated in Strauss’ frothy concoction.

Making a stellar American debut, Austrian soprano Daniela Fally as the chambermaid Adele is charming, funny and sings the role gloriously. She has the audience almost literally eating out of her hand from her first notes.

Also making her American debut and singing her first-ever Rosalinde, German soprano Juliane Banse musters all of the sophistication and humor needed and has a beautiful tone, but appears to lack the vocal agility needed for this role. On opening night, her voice came in under pitch for the finale of Act I and her Act II csárdás was a comedic triumph but a vocal disappointment as she was stiff and vocally inflexible and opted out of the final high note completely. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: La traviata/Lyric Opera

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Marina Rebeka/Photo by Todd Rosenberg

Marina Rebeka/Photo: Todd Rosenberg


The Verdi bicentennial celebration continues at Lyric Opera with a new production of “La traviata,” Verdi’s most popular middle-period work. As was the case with the new “Parsifal” running concurrently, a stage director with little opera-directing experience was brought in with, alas, similar lackluster results.

Despite having presented “traviata” fourteen times in the company’s nearly sixty-year history—including Maria Callas having made her American debut in the role at Lyric in its opening season—this is the first time, we are told, that Lyric is presenting a complete “traviata.” Go figure.

Act I begins contemplatively enough, Violetta shown in profile preparing herself for her big party while the prelude is still being heard before the scrim is lifted to reveal an odd —by operatic standards—small party in front of a semi-circular background. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Parsifal/Lyric Opera

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Photo by Todd Rosenberg

Photo: Todd Rosenberg


Kudos to Lyric Opera for celebrating the Wagner bicentennial by bringing us Wagner’s last, most glorious and perhaps most controversial work, “Parsifal, ” in an all-new production for the occasion.

This is an opera unlike any other: Wagner himself called it a Bühnenweihfestspiel, or consecrated stage work, and specified that it not be performed outside of his own theater in Bayreuth and without applause. These wishes were encouraged by Wagner’s widow Cosima well into the twentieth century although a handful of early concert versions and unauthorized productions managed to appear nonetheless.

In the case of Lyric Opera, “Parsifal” had only been presented twice in the company’s nearly sixty-year history before the current production, which much as Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s contemporary sci-fi production had done in 2002, largely demythologizes the work of its Christian context. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Madama Butterfly/Lyric Opera

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James Valenti and Amanda_Echalaz/Photo by Dan Rest

James Valenti and Amanda Echalaz/Photo: Dan Rest

After more than thirty years, Lyric Opera is finally presenting a new production of “Madama Butterfly.” Well, new to Chicago, anyway: a production that current Lyric general director Anthony Freud commissioned at the Houston Grand Opera in 2010, originally directed there by British director Michael Grandage.

The production, listed as a co-commission of the Houston Grand Opera, the Grand Théâtre de Genève and Lyric Opera, was directed by Grandage in both Houston and Switzerland, but directorial responsibilities have been tossed off to Louisa Muller for the Chicago production.

Hal Prince’s production, first seen here in 1982 and revived several times across the decades, also eventually started coming without Prince, but at least Prince himself directed its initial and earliest incarnations. Read the rest of this entry »