Top 10 Chicago Productions of 2016

| January 2, 2017


Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda at PrivateBank Theatre, Broadway in Chicago 3Brenda Barrie, James Doherty. Michael E Martin, Johnny Arena and Rudy Galvan in United Flight 232The Joffrey Ballet presents Christopher Wheeldon’s The Nutcracker, Auditorium Theatre 27Jessica Ervin and Bryce Gangel in Dry Land, Rivendell TheatreMichael Holding by Laura Wade in Posh, Steep Theatre GGMaria Velazquez in Library from Learning Curve, Albany Park Theater ProjectThomas Cox, Bolden. (Back) Ruiz, Sullivan, Brown. Photo by Michael Brosilow (2)Cecelia Wingate and Liz Sharpe in Byhalia Mississippi, New Colony Definition TheatreSydney Charles and Julian Parker in Prowess, Jackalope Theatre (Joel Maisonet)Amy Stricker, Britain Gebhardt, Max DeTogne, Lizzie Schwarzrock, Kelly Baskin, Caitlin Jackson

Another year, another 12 months of great theater! 2016 blessed the Windy City with inspired new works and riveting revivals from a wide range of companies – from the largest equity houses and dance companies to the smallest of Chicago’s storefronts. Taking into account the hundreds of productions that we reviewed this past year, here are our picks, in alphabetical order, for the best 10 productions of 2016. Bravo to all!!  

See our picks below the fold


          Top Ten Chicago Productions of 2016

(in alphabetical order; all summaries by Lauren Whalen)


Evan Linder, Kiki Layne and Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr. in Byhalia Mississippi, New Colony Definition Theatre

Byhalia, Mississippi

The New Colony / Definition Theatre  (Jan 11 – March 14)

Evan Linder’s uncompromising look at infidelity in the American South enjoyed simultaneous world premieres in Chicago, Toronto, Memphis and Charleston. While I can’t speak for the other three, I can confidently state that the Chicago premiere (which resulted in a well-deserved extended run and remount) gave underdogs New Colony and Definition a fresh influx of respectability in local theater. Playwright Linder also portrayed lead character Jim, a perpetual small-town boy whose marriage to high school sweetheart Laurel (Liz Sharpe) is threatened when the white couple’s baby is born with dark skin. Thanks to the unflappable direction by Definition’s Tyrone Phillip, John Wilson’s humbly authentic set and a host of magnificent lead and supporting performances, Byhalia, Mississippi was a simple yet thunderous look at the intricacies of marriage, the pitfalls of dual infidelity and the mostly-impossible standards we place on one another.  (our review)


Jessica Ervin, Bryce Gangel and Charlotte Thomas in Dry Land, Rivendell Theatre 

Dry Land

Rivendell Theatre (April 27 – May 28)

“Punch me! Harder!” The order-turned-battle-cry of one teenage girl to another kicked off this Midwest premiere, equal parts shocking and stunning. Set entirely in a high school locker room, Ruby Rae Spiegel’s script was not for the faint of heart.  But thanks to Hallie Gordon’s intelligent and quick-witted direction, Spiegel’s sensitive and nuanced teen characters, and glorious lead performances by Bryce Gangel and Jessica Ervin, the story of a promising high school swimmer, an unexpected pregnancy and the brutality of youth (to each other, and within) became one for the feminist record books. And thanks to a nonverbal sequence that was pitch-perfect in its uncomfortable nature, I haven’t looked at a janitor the same way since.  (our review)

Chris De'Sean Lee stars as Marquis de Lafayette in Hamilton, Broadway in Chicago   


Broadway in Chicago (Oct 19 – open run)

Before the opening of his second musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda was a respected composer and performer with a Tony Award under his belt. Since the soundtrack of his hip-hop take on the Founding Fathers was released last year, the 36-year-old with the gift of Shakespearean-level wordplay has become a worldwide phenomenon, rightfully earning the adoration of everyone from President Barack Obama to a generation of new musical theater fans singing along in the backseat of their parents’ cars. Chicago is the first city outside of New York to welcome this groundbreaking piece of theater, so the pressure was on for this cast to fill the shoes of Miranda himself, plus Tony Award winners Renee Elise Goldsberry, Daveed Diggs and Leslie Odom, Jr. Thankfully, they were more than up to the task, particularly Miguel Cervantes’ uniquely cerebral interpretation of the title character and Tony winner Karen Olivo’s sharp and intuitive Angelica Schuyler. Well worth the standing in line, the Internet scrambling and the lottery entries, a ticket to Hamilton is a key to understanding both the sacrifices of those before us, and the necessity to stay proactive as America evolves.  (our review)

Caitlin Jackson, Amy Stricker, Kelly Baskin, Lizzie Schwarzrock, Britain Gebhardt

High Fidelity

Refuge Theatre Project  (Jan 31 – Feb 28)

Both Nick Hornby’s bestselling novel and the subsequent film adaptation starring John Cusack successfully made a relatable, even likable character out of Rob Gordon, a flawed record store owner with a passion for music and a tendency to strike out in the love department. But what of the stage musical, which had a respectable but forgettable New York run over a decade ago? Refuge Theatre made the savvy decision to stage their High Fidelity in an intimate gallery-type space, breathing rock star energy into Rob’s quest to figure out how, why and where he keeps going wrong with women. A breakout performance from Max DeTogne as Rob, as well as a sarcastic and joyful Caitlin Jackson as his snarky pal Liz, transformed what could have been a passable evening out into a laugh-out-loud musical labor of love.  And Chicago audience are in luck – look for a remount of this hit running Jan 27 thru March 5 at a pop up Refuge Records in Wicker Park!  (our review)

Maidenwena Alba in Learning Project, Albany Park Theater Project, Third Rail Projects

Learning Curve

Albany Park Theater Project  (July 31 – Dec 17)

It’s not every day that one goes back to high school, but perhaps we should, even just for a few hours. Dedicated to working with Chicago teenagers in both performing arts and academics, the Albany Park Theater Project is known for its groundbreaking student-led and artist-facilitated original work. However, Learning Curve took APTP’s originality to a whole new level. The immersive experience explored a day in the life of a Chicago Public School from the perspectives of both teacher and student. From burned-out instructors and frazzled administrators to gossiping in the hallways to prom proposals, each theatergoer was treated to a unique “day” and left with a new perspective on the state of education in our city, our nation, and our society. Learning Curve was an intense 100 minutes, and an unforgettable triumph for the pioneering company, (our review)

Sean Michael Sullivan, Melanie Brezill, Shaledon Brown, Kamal Angelo Bolden, Thomas Cox, Ruiz, Williams, Gilmore

Man in the Ring

Court Theatre (Sept 24 – Oct 16)

Court Theatre productions veer toward the heavy, the rich and the unforgettable, and this fall’s Man in the Ring was all three, and then some. The true story of Emile Griffith, a six-time welterweight world champion – and a gay man in the hyper-straight environment of professional boxing – wasn’t just a gut punch but a lethal coldcock to the head. Told with a nonlinear structure, Man in the Ring bounced back and forth in time for maximum effect, equal parts cautionary tale and psychological thriller. The dream team of veteran director Charles Newell and choreographer Tommy Rapley collaborated to infuse Michael Cristofer’s script with a delicate balance of modern sincerity and ancient Greek tragedy. Homophobia, murder and destruction of the body and mind were all on viciously vivid display as the Court once again delivered a life-changing take on a little-known historical figure.  (our review)

Fernando Duarte stars as Chinese Dancer in The Nutcracker by Christopher Wheeldon, Joffrey Ballet 2016

The Nutcracker

The Joffrey Ballet  (Dec 11 – Dec 30

This December, renowned stage and screen choreographer Christopher Wheeldon premiered a new and exciting twist to Joffrey Ballet’s always-lovely performance of the holiday dance classic. Rather than a wealthy and coddled little girl, this Nutcracker’s heroine was scrappy peasant Marie, whose immigrant single mother is preparing a gold sculpture for the upcoming 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. By transporting the location and circumstances, Wheeldon and Joffrey’s cadre of athletic and gorgeous dancers found magic in both the ordinary and extraordinary. The Drosselmeyer character transformed into the Grand Impresario, a man both dedicated to the Fair and generous to his migrant employees and their children, who made their own family Christmas in a heartfelt opening scene. Far from the sugary norm, this Nutcracker had grit and heart, and will delight balletomanes, newbies and everyone in between for years to come.  (our review)

Matthew Garry, Dash Barber, Michael Holding, and Sean Wiberg in Posh, Steep Theatre LM


Steep Theatre (Jan 21 – March 12)

Thanks to the upcoming Presidential inauguration, the topic of white male privilege is more relevant than ever. Steep Theatre Company began 2016 with a bang, reminding audiences just what’s at stake if young men are allowed to get away with anything and everything. Laura Wade’s Posh was equal parts cozy and bombastic, a cautionary tale of the British equivalent of a fraternity, and a dinner party gone horribly, horribly wrong. Director Jonathan Berry took many artistic risks – Steep typically has much smaller casts and less elaborate sets – and each and every one paid off in multitudes. Ashley Ann Woods’ set, which was destroyed every night and subsequently reassembled, was the ultimate symbol of the 99% white male cast of characters: destruction and decay running just under the surface of their buttoned-up, fun-loving exteriors.  (our review)

Julian Parker, Sydney Charles, Andrew Goetten, and Donovan Diaz in Prowess, Jackalope Theatre


Jackalope Theatre  (May 24 – June 25)

Playwright Ike Holter is a Chicago treasure, and his imaginative wit was on full display in Jackalope’s world premiere of Prowess. The story of four Southsiders who respond to increasing street violence by forming a vigilante gang, Prowess was equal parts comic book-esque wish fulfillment and a timely analysis of the dangers that lie on the city’s collective doorstep. Director Marti Lyons expertly guided a four-person cast and a gifted design team to create a minimalistic yet achingly real story with a cinematic quality (both the polish of Marvel films andx the rough-and-ready quality of indie films). A sad and hopeful production executed at breakneck speed, Prowess was a stark and essential reminder of the urban Hades that most face on a daily, even hourly, basis.  (our review)

Alice da Cunha, James Doherty, Elana Elyce and Michael E Martin in United Flight 232

United Flight 232

The House Theatre of Chicago  (March 20 – May 1)

Everyone should have perished, yet many lived to tell the tale. In fact, the crash had a literal one-in-a-million chance of even occurring. United Flight 232, adapted and directed by Vanessa Stalling, was a beautifully presented oral history of defying the odds, and the doomed flight that manifested in an almost overwhelming plethora of human resilience, kindness and support. Known for work both thorough and profound – with a dash of stage magic – the House Theatre left no detail neglected. From the gray corridor to the folding chairs to Brenda Barrie’s bravura performance as a courageous flight attendant, United Flight 232 was pure emotion and inspiration. There was nary a dry eye in the peanut gallery as Barrie uttered the final, powerful line of dialogue: “It’s good to be alive.”  (our review)



Select Production Videos




United Flight 232


Byhalia, Mississippi


Man in the Ring


The Nutcracker


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Category: Albany Park Theatre Project, Auditorium Theatre, Best-of-Year, Broadway Armory, Broadway in Chicago, Chopin Theatre, Court Theatre, Definition Theatre, Den Theatre, House Theatre, Jackalope Theatre, Joffrey Ballet, Lauren Whalen, Lin-Manuel Miranda, New Colony, PrivateBank Theatre, Refuge Theatre Project, Rivendell Theatre, Steep Theatre, Video, YouTube

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