We live within a half hour of some of the best theater the Midwest can offer-from Halsted Street to the Goodman-yet at times we tend to overlook some of the fine work right within our own community. As we wrap up 2006, allow me to reflect back on 10 local theatrical productions that I felt were particularly exciting in a year chock full of wonderful shows. These 10, arranged in no particular order, were in my opinion the best of the lot:
1) Bleacher Bums at Open Door Repertory Company
This late ’70s Chicago classic is set during the annual baseball game pitting the Cubs against the White Sox. It was uproariously funny at times, amplifying the themes of hope and desperation so familiar to die-hard Cubs fans. The characters-non-players-were all fans in the stand, many of which had been gathering there for so long they knew one another well.
2) Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story at Village Players
This toe-tapping show included one Buddy Holly gem after another. The production featured all the ’50s-era rock music performed live right on stage, with performers giving their all in the classic rock ‘n’ roll manner. Josh Solomon in the title role gave an inspired impersonation, likable and dynamic, as the tragic yet highly energized young rocker.
3) Meet Me In St. Louis at Circle Theatre
Based on the lavish 1944 MGM Judy Garland musical, this exuberant, heart-warming show focused on a delightful St. Louis family on the brink of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Centennial Exposition. The glossy, nostalgic portrayal of early 20th century life was faithful to the Hollywood film classic yet expanded the characters and storyline with additional music by the original composer and exciting Kevin Bellie choreography.
4) Picnic at Festival Theatre
As part of Festival’s 31st season, this production offered an alternative to the typical Shakespeare-only programs. This realistic William Inge drama showed how a half-dozen lives are woven together when a cocky drifter comes to a small Kansas town in the 1950s. This steamy show featured strong performances outdoors in Austin Gardens. Many audience members familiar with the film version, starring Kim Novak and William Holden, were moved by the intensity of
the original script. Adrianne Cury was especially strong as an “old maid” schoolteacher.
5) Sweet Smell of Success at
Based on a bleakly cynical film noir classic of 1957 about the dark side of show business, starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, this musical featured a Marvin Hamlisch score and a John Guare script, plus searing performances, and vivid artistic and technical direction. The songs were as sharp, biting, and relentless as the nasty charac-ters who sang them. Jon Steinhagen was chillingly credible as an arrogant, ruthless Walter Winchell-type columnist with the power to make or break nearly anyone.
6) Julius Caesar at Festival Theatre
Though purists were annoyed that the traditional ancient Roman milieu was replaced by the 1960s, the era of assassinations and the Viet Nam war, this Shakespearean classic felt invigorated by the change of period. Festival Theatre’s 31st season of Shakespeare-in-the-park focused on issues of conscience among ambitious, conflicted men. It was a gripping production that allowed the audience no complacent preconceptions of this familiar tragedy about political treachery.
7) The House of Bernarda Alba at Circle Theatre
This taut, electrifying production of the 1930s play by Federico Garcia Lorca, a playwright of the Spanish Civil War period, focused on the power struggle among a group of strong, desperate women-a stern widowed matriarch and her five unmarried daughters. The strong direction and fiery performances emphasized the power of repression and jealousy to split a family apart.
8) Over the Tavern – Village Players
This little-known comedy of late-1950s family life, hilarious and biting, was a big hit because it was not only funny but also touching and credible. Rich in period detail, the story focused on a Polish Catholic family that lived in a cramped apartment above the bar they own. The main character, based upon the playwright, was a wisecracking 12-year-old.
9) The Sisters Rosensweig at Open Door Repertory Company
This well-paced production of Wendy Wasserstein’s play provided a perfect showcase for three strong actresses. The storyline focuses on a threesome of witty, intelligent, older sisters riddled with self-doubt, yet still struggling to define themselves as they gather to celebrate the eldest’s 54th birthday in London.
10) Streetcar Named Desire at
Village Players breathed new life into Tennessee Williams’ best-known work, proving the 60-year-old warhorse still packs a wallop. There was especially fine ensemble work by the actors, including Julie Partyka as Blanche DuBois, arriving in New Orleans suffering from an emotional breakdown and having to live in a cramped, steamy French Quarter flat with her sister and her sister’s brutal husband Stanley Kowalski, played by Nico Tricoci.
Doug Deuchler is the Wednesday Journal theater reviewer.