While 2023 has proven to be financially and structurally challenging for many companies and artists, artistic excellence abounded in Chicago theater. Here’s our top 10 list of the year, plus 10 more titles that deserve a spot. I only took into account productions created for the first time in 2023, otherwise the extraordinarily well-sung touring production of “Les Miserables” would also be here, just one of them.
But there are some notable shows on this list. Some still play locally; some have plans to move to Broadway. This has been a particularly good year for musicals, but over the last 12 months I’ve been amazed by everything from revivals to bold new works.
one. “Who is Tommy?” At the Goodman Theatre: Director Des McAnuff has long been a Broadway magician, but Chicago learned last summer that his heart was in “Tommy”; The existential roar of The Who’s 1969 rage at the psychological effects of his emotionally repressed parents. Goodman’s revival was a pinball thriller, a dynamic new staging that took full advantage of video technology not available in the original. David Korins’ expressionist set design, Peter Nigrini’s explosive projections and Lorin Latarro’s astonishing choreography combined with Pete Townshend’s music to reinvent “Tommy” for a new generation. Next up is Broadway in spring 2024.
2. “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” At the Marriott Theater in Lincolnshire: For decades, the Marriott Theater has staged its own mainstream productions of relatively new Broadway hits, but director Jessica Fisch’s beautiful “Beauty” goes far beyond the everyday. The show featured a star named the amazing Kaitlyn Davis, who played piano just like Carole King, and a supporting cast full of terrific performers determined to bring a level of emotional intensity and realism that went beyond the original production. Above all, the swirling, fresh staging captured the intensity and stress of America’s music and songwriting factories, where young people compete to write the next hit that will soundtrack their American lives. Marriott has never had a better showing.
3. ““The Cherry Orchard” At the Goodman Theatre: Unsurprisingly, Robert Falls’ choice for his final show at the Goodman Theater after 35 years as artistic director was the greatest play ever written about the pain of letting go of something you love deeply—perhaps also an opportunity, but mostly a sharp pain. The meta-convenience of the Chekhov movie wasn’t all the appeal of a witty and deeply resonant production that feels like a meditation on one of Chicago’s most formidable artistic legacies, filled to the brim with joy, sadness, and the palpable intensity of Chicago actors. Anyone who knows and feels what Falls’ Goodman career meant to this city will not soon forget his debut.
4. “One time” At the Writers’ Theatre: This 2012 Broadway musical, with music by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová and written for the stage by Enda Walsh, is the gold standard for how to adapt movies into musicals. It distilled the cinematic plot down to its humanist essence and focused on the things that really matter in theater: love, family and emotions, our collective awareness of mortality and our collective fear of change. At Writers Theatre, director Katie Spelman and leads Dana Saleh Omar and Matt Mueller seemed to know every inch of the emotional landscape, and together they lovingly crafted an innovative and profoundly beautiful staging, fully exemplifying the intimacy at hand. “How’s your heart?” Da asks. I’m throwing fast at Glencoe.
5. “Birthday candles” At Northlight Theatre: Rescued from a poor (and poorly received) New York production, author Noah Haidle’s quirky but beautiful personal drama about our lifelong search for patterns in the universe and our resilience in the face of mounting losses of life is presented in a fine new local staging. Northern Light Theatre. Starring real-life couple Kate Fry and Tim Kane, director Jessica Thebus’s chilling production was beautifully cast, acted with great generosity and honesty, and offered a tangible salve to Northlight’s loyal audience. Here was a lovely tribute to the playwright’s mother and, more generally, to the good and brave people of the Midwest who have each managed to survive. The audience loved every minute.
6. “Swing Situation” At the Goodman Theatre: Playwright Rebecca Gilman’s modest-scale play, the latest work by the Upper Midwest’s leading living poet, was set in Wisconsin and explored themes such as environmentalism, mental health, opioid addiction, trucking, policing and even the consequences of small, cross-voting voting . supporting communities and turning them into warehouses for Dollar Generals and Kwik Trips. “Swing State,” which later went off-Broadway, struck me as the first American drama to truly grasp how large swathes of America have changed during the pandemic and to highlight the despair, even panic, felt by many mostly silent Americans. It’s about divisiveness in a vestigial country where once-shared values have strayed to extremes.
7. “Bible at Colonus” At the Court Theatre: Co-directors Mark JP Hood and Charles Newell bring a magnificently produced, deeply involving and richly sung new staging (by Bob Telson and Lee Breuer) of a long-loved, choral-inspired work that draws rich connections between the spiritual longings felt by ancient times. They contributed. The Pentecostal tradition, infused with the Greeks and the gospel, was effectively nurtured just a mile or two from this theater. The stars, Kelvin Roston Jr., Ariana Burks and Aeriel Williams, were as spectacular as the intensity. The show’s Chicago premiere was followed by a highly successful run at the Getty Villa Museum in California.
8. “Twelfth Night” At Chicago Shakespeare Theatre: Beautiful young Chicago director Tyrone Phillips made his Chicago Shakespeare Theater debut and was impressed with the relentlessly optimistic, Caribbean-themed “Twelfth Night,” rich in musicality and clarity and focused on the show’s exploration of the fragility of love. Phillips cleverly cut the hit comedy to bring it home in less than two hours, encouraging rich audience interaction while adding a soundtrack of songs by Bob Marley and others. Add a willing and talented cast and you’ve got a show that has everyone smiling.. “Everything will be okay” really.
9. “Run, Bambi, Run” at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre: An honorary member of the Chicago theater community—just 90 minutes away—Wisconsin’s premier theater has staged a populist, true-crime musical about a woman accused of a murder she apparently didn’t commit and forced to evade TV cameras while running for her life. Steppenwolf Theater troupe member Eric Simonson, composer Gordon Gano of Violent Femmes, and director Mark Clements reminded their audiences of the great power of the local story: Many in the audience remembered the real “Bambi” Bembenek, the former cop who was once a bunny in Playboy. Escapee from Lake Geneva resort and Taycheedah Correctional Facility in Wisconsin. Let this “Bambi” work again.
10. “Chicago Lyric Opera’s The Factotum: This new opera from Will Liverman and DJ King Rico was met with a rapturous response at the sold-out Harris Theatre, reimagining the definition of opera in an elite, formalist style, embedding and encapsulating the experience in pseudo-operatic sounds. R&B, soul, funk, hip-hop and gospel, and brings the action of Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” to Chicago’s South Side. In doing so, it created a rare local resonance for a company better known for its role in international operatic waters. There was still work to be done, of course, but it was still a unique cultural event that came with a booming Chicago-style soundscape that announced Liverman as a world-class deal based right here in town.
Ten more great shows in alphabetical order: “Blues for Alabama Skies” Written by Remy Bumppo; “Cabaret” by Porchlight Music Theatre, “Boop! Musical” CIBC Theatre; “Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas” at the Studebaker Theatre; “Eurydice” at the Writers’ Theater in Glencoe; “Oh, the Places to Shine!” Second City etc. by; “entry point” by the Albany Park Theater Project, “Stone Age” at the Mercury Theatre; “Toni Stone” at the Goodman Theatre; “A View from the Bridge” By Shattered Sphere Theatre.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.