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
1 Renée Fleming
There is no greater testament to the power of an artist to remake the face of an entire institution than the evolving impact that the appointment of superstar soprano Renée Fleming as the Lyric Opera’s first-ever “creative consultant,” just over a year ago, is having. Thus far this has meant lending her likeness and persona to the company, chatting in internet season “teasers,” offering a master class and even a press conference via Skype and singing a handful of arias at crowd-pleasing events. The city has been bombarded with Leninesque posters and banners of Fleming ironically sporting her edgier “Dark Hope” rock crossover look rather than the more glamorous opera diva look while boasting that “our singers don’t need microphones” and of the “PASSION” of the operatic genre. Next season, however, Chicago will have a chance at long last to experience Fleming the artist in her full glory as she performs the role of Blanche DuBois in the operatic setting of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” that was written for her by André Previn.
2 Charles Newell
Court Theatre’s on fire lately, and the artistic director is keeping his hand firmly on the till, directing many of the biggest shows. He’s proven adept at both musical and drama, the former highlighted by his award-winning helming of Tony Kushner’s “Caroline, or Change” a couple years back, and his acclaimed if controversial approach to “Porgy and Bess” just last year. He just wrapped up directing the equally acclaimed “An Iliad” in December, and is preparing for one of his biggest challenges yet this spring: a revival of “Angels in America” at the express request of playwright Kushner himself, who became a fan when he saw how masterfully Newell handled his aforementioned musical.
3 Gary Griffin
With Gary Griffin having successfully crossed over into directing operetta with “The Merry Widow” and “The Mikado” in back-to-back seasons at Lyric Opera and having directed his first-ever full-length Shakespeare last season at Chicago Shakespeare Theater (“As You Like It”) followed by a much-anticipated “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that opens there next month, it might be easy to forget his magical way with the genre most associated with him, i.e., the musical. But then Griffin directs his first-ever production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” last fall at CST—where he serves as associate director and where his earlier Sondheim productions were no less revelatory —and reminds us by giving us the show of the year that when it comes to musicals, especially Sondheim, Griffin has no equal.
4 Darren Criss
Actor and songwriter
Back in 2009, University of Michigan students Darren Criss, Brian Holden, Matt Lang and Nick Lang created a theatrical version of fan-fiction parody, “A Very Potter Musical,” which they performed live and then posted on YouTube. In spite of modest production values and a storyline that required familiarity with JK Rowling’s novels (or perhaps because of), the videos became a phenomenon and Team StarKid was born. Before long, they were cranking out more, including a sequel to the first Potter musical, and soon relocated to Chicago. Here. they remain relatively under the radar—their sole local live production was last year’s critically mixed smash hit “Starship”—but they might be just the ones who redefine theater for the internet age, with more than one-hundred-million views on YouTube to date, a series of Billboard-charting cast albums and a multi-platform model that combines live entertainment with the internet, albums, DVDs, etc. Criss, who played Potter in the musicals and is one of the principal songwriters and composers for the company, has had a decent solo career as well these last couple of years. As Blaine on the television show, “Glee,” he’s a breakout star, and he’s currently making his Broadway debut as the lead in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” where he’s replacing, ironically, Daniel Radcliffe, who came to fame in the movies as… Harry Potter.
5 Robert Falls
Don’t let the quieter, gentler recent work of Robert Falls the last couple of seasons fool you. He’s just been showing you he can do small, intimate actor-driven plays with the best of them, like his best-ensemble-ever take on Chekhov’s “The Seagull” or his painterly work on John Logan’s “Red” this last fall. Or that he still knows how to put life into new work, like his coaxing forth of playwright Rebecca Gilman’s departure from her norm with the critically mixed historic epic “A True History of the Johnstown Flood.” Because after dipping out to the West Coast to hang out with (and direct) celebrities Ed Harris, Bill Pullman, Amy Madigan and Glenne Headly in the world premiere of Beth Henley’s “The Jacksonian” at Geffen Playhouse this winter, he’s back to revive Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” with Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane. Now that’s the Falls you know, right?
6 Jackie Taylor
Playwright and director
When a bootstrapping theater company reaches the pinnacle of a major new building, it’s always a reflection of superior artistry over a sustained period of time, usually practiced by an ensemble of some kind. But when Black Ensemble Theater opened its nineteen-million-dollar Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Arts Center this winter, everyone knew it was the Jackie Taylor show. The company’s founder’s also its driving creative force, having written, produced and directed more than a hundred plays and signature musical biographies, including “The Jackie Wilson Story” tearing up the stage right now. You might think she had her hands full getting the theater open and would have taken a breather from the stage, but you’d be wrong. She’s directing three out of five shows in the new space’s inaugural season.
7 Alejandro Cerrudo
Choreographer and dancer
Alejandro Cerrudo continues to earn his keep as Hubbard Street’s first Resident Choreographer (a position created just for him), turning out thoughtful, sophisticated, aesthetically breathtaking work. His 2010 piece for four women, entitled “Blanco,” veritably stopped time within the walls of the Harris Theater. His newest work is set on the Hubbard Street 2 company as part of the upcoming New Works Festival.
8 Mick Napier
If you want to get a sense for Mick Napier’s dark mischief, check out his website, which occupies the top position in a Google search. It’s nothing more than a single black page with the URL, micknapier.com, set in white all-caps sans serif. It says something else, too: that Napier doesn’t need to blow his own horn, since everyone who matters to him knows who he is and where to find him. Need convincing that the founder of Annoyance Theatre has become the premier director of sketch comedy? How about that Second City pegged him to direct their star-studded fiftieth-anniversary show. Since then, Napier continues to direct and act at Annoyance, as well as helming a regular “Second City’s Improv All-Stars” show for the new UP Comedy Club at the venerable Old Town institution.
9 Tracy Letts
Actor and playwright
It’s almost like Steppenwolf stalwart Tracy Letts is making up for lost time, you know, all that time he wasted writing plays like “August: Osage County” and “Superior Donuts” that went to Broadway and won Tonys and Pulitizers and jazz like that. Like he just could not wait to get back on stage, which he’s since done with a vengeance, starting with “American Buffalo” in 2009 and then accelerating into a gripping lead role alongside Amy Morton in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” that’s headed for Broadway this fall. While he waits for that, he played a major role in “Middletown” and then stepped in, at the last minute when ensemble mate John Mahoney had to leave the country due to a death in the family, into a principal role in “Penelope,” on stage now. We’re worn out just typing all this.
10 Amy Morton
Actor and director
If it was not clear how much hard work is at hand in her endeavors, Amy Morton would be exhibit-one in the life-is-unfair shrine, so multifaceted is her talent. One day, she’s devouring the stage as the feral Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (a Broadway-bound performance), the next, it seems, she’s directing one of the best plays of 2011, also for Steppenwolf, “Clybourne Park.” Did we mention hard work? She went directly from “Clybourne” into directing “Penelope,” on stage at Steppenwolf right now.