Broadway actor Ben Vereen showed up unannounced at American Theater Company's revisionist production of "Hair" and told the cast they had rescued the show. Mikhail Baryshnikov hit town, doing Chekhov in "Man a Case." The president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, spent his night off watching "The Way West" at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Smokey Robinson, looking good, hit the red carpet for the first Chicago night of "Motown the Musical."
At the opening-night party for "Jack Lemmon Returns," the late actor's college-bound granddaughter, Sydney Noel Lemmon, sang while her dad, Chris (Jack's son), proudly played piano. The Goodman Theatre's opening of "The White Snake" was postponed a few days after a backstage injury.
The Chicago Commercial Collective launched a Kickstarter campaign to try to keep its struggling remount of "Hit the Wall" swinging but failed (the show closes May 25). A new, 99-seat theater, to be known as The Bridge, announced it was opening its doors in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood. "The Sound of Music" easily outsold "Oklahoma!" last year's musical at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. And the phones rang like crazy at Northlight Theatre, which unspooled a formidable "Lost in Yonkers," reminding us that Neil Simon's best work still is a bridge to proven excellence.
To put all of that another way, there has been a whole heck of a lot going on in Chicago theater these past couple of weeks. I could sure use a night off; I think 20 shows have opened these past 20 days.
There's about to be a pause in the action for the Memorial Day weekend, although before the brats hit my grill, I'm looking forward to Thursday's opening of a brand-new contemporary musical, "Days Like Today," at Writers Theatre, with a book by Laura Eason ("House of Cards") and music by Alan Schmuckler. More about that intriguing coming attraction in a few days.
You can also watch for my review of this weekend's sold-out run of "Man in a Case" at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
So with the great rush of shows, let me try and guide you to some good stuff.
"Hair," the latest ATC attempt to restore the soul of an iconic musical, definitely is worth seeing. The production is not flawless, but it's true to the show's original spirit and, I promise, markedly different from any "Hair" you may have seen. Ideas spill freely from the stage, and there is excitement in the room.
I'd say the same about the new production of "Hit the Wall," the original Chicago piece with live music that riffs on the Stonewall riots. "Hit the Wall" also is something of a restoration of an original show. When Ike Holter's play, as staged in Chicago by The Inconvenience, moved off-Broadway a couple of years ago after premiering in the Steppenwolf Garage, it was compromised. Now it is back to its original freewheeling self, at least for another week or so. If you're interested in 1960s rebellion, you could do worse than spending your weekend hopping from "Hair" to "Hit the Wall." Both shows are terrific.
Then you could hop to Skokie and get yourself "Lost in Yonkers."
Hardly the same kind of show, I know, but fans of Chicago theater typically have eclectic tastes. And this fine Northlight production has reminded a lot of people around town of the talents of formidable 83-year-old actress Ann Whitney, whose amazing performance reminds us that not all senior artists of the Chicago theater care to traffic in sentimentality. Whitney has been overdue for such a showcase, and, well, you'll just have to head out and see what she is doing.
So that's "Hair," "Hit the Wall" and "Lost in Yonkers." With me so far? And if you can score a good deal at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, "The Sound of Music" is lovely to watch and lively throughout
Let me save a little space for three small shows. Two of them are very much about families in crisis. The melancholy British play by Nick Payne, "If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet," is the subject of a beautifully acted production at the low-budget but high-integrity Steep Theatre. Director Jonathan Berry's production contains one of my favorite performances of the entire season — from the young actor Shane Kenyon. You'll be very touched by this warm drama on Berwyn Avenue. A few miles to the west, the Gift Theatre of Jefferson Park is staging "Thinner Than Water," a lovely piece of writing by Melissa Ross that looks at the complex relationship of siblings who share one, but not both, parents.
Both of these shows are coming to the end of their runs. Both are very fine productions.
Lastly, note that this is the final weekend for "Principal Principle," a co-production of Stage Left and Theatre Seven at Theater Wit on Chicago's North Side. Joe Zarrow's funny, wise and compassionate play is about the travails of teaching in Chicago Public Schools. Theater Wit has been packed with educators on a nightly basis. The show may return later this year — I hope it does, as it's one of the best new plays of the year in Chicago theater. But I'd grab the chance to see it while you can. Who knows what will get in the way this summer?
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