Theater in Review: Show Me Chicago's Top Ten Picks for 2011.

Theater in Review: Show Me Chicago's Top Ten Picks for 2011.

As we say Auld Lang Syne to 2011 and 2012 becomes a reality, we stand at the crossroads of the old and the new. Ready for a fresh start but not ready to let completely go.  It is from this vantage point that Show Me Chicago will be looking back today and then looking ahead next week.  Today SMC, honors the age old tradition of selecting “the best of” the past year in theater.

For theater in Chicago, 2011 was a very good year.  The 250 plus theaters showcased everything from big splashy musicals, veteran stars, new stars, comedy, tried and true productions, innovative new pieces and more.  Highlights of the 2011 year include: Lookingglass Theatre honored with the 2011 Regional Theatre Tony Award, making it the fifth Chicago company to receive this recognition; Broadway calls for Jessie Mueller (Guys and Dolls); Jennifer Lim (Chinglish); Carrie Coon (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe, The Real Thing); hot playwrights Sarah Ruhl (Stage Kiss and In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play); Enda Walsh (Penelope); and Bruce Norris (Clybourne Park)…and much, much more.

Without further adieu, here are our ten picks–plus an additional five honorable mentions.

1. Chinglish. David Henry Hwang’s comic satire on Chinese-American relations created a delicious treat for linguists as well as general theater-goers.  The  recipe:  add one part English to one part Chinese, mix well and you have Chinglish–the hilarious original production that took Goodman Theater audiences by storm before heading east to the Broadway stage.

2. Follies.  Gary Griffin’s revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman musical was a top-notch production at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre–some might say, even better than Broadway.

3. John Mahoney and Ronnie Reed nailed it in Northlight Theatre’s The Outgoing Tide. The storyline of a man in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease sounded like a downer, but the story written by playwright Bruce Graham, was handled with grace, dignity and humor making it a standout among Chicago’s many wonderful productions of 2011.

4. Red. Goodman Theater’s Chicago Premiere of John Logan’s Tony-award-winning play Red is a special show that comes along once in a blue moon.  Red was an emotionally charged production with Edward Gero as Mark Rothko and Patrick Andrews as his assistant Ken that painted a remarkable picture of a man audiences got to know from his very soul.

5. The Sound of Music. Always reliable Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook took the oldie but goodie Sound of Music to new heights under the direction of Rachel Rockwell (Ragtime, Miss Saigon), making it “one of my favorite things” for 2011.

6. Clybourne Park. Steppenwolf Theatre explored the politics of race from two time periods almost three generations apart in the Bruce Norris Pulitzer-prize winning play Clybourne Park questioning how far we really have come…and making us see where we are in a new light.

7. TimeLine Theatre had another banner year continuing their fourteenth season of offering audiences plays with historical significance.  Along with a look back at Frost/Nixon and taking A Walk in the Woods to ease Russian/American tensions, TimeLine brought us the story of  The Pitmen Painters. This somewhat unknown tale recreated  a small mining village in Northern England in 1934, with a group of hardscrabble working class men, who toiled unimaginable hours for what was barely a living wage yet wanted more meaning in their world.  They hired a tutor, learned to paint, and gained world recognition for their work–making this masterpiece one of our top ten.

8. A Twist of Water, a homegrown Chicago original, by Caitlin Montanye Parrish, pays tribute to Chicago’s unique past. It portrays the funny and profoundly touching story of a non-traditional family–made up of two white gay fathers raising an African American teenage daughter, Jira portrayed by Falashay Pearson. The unlikely family had been getting along quite well until a tragic accident claimed the life of Jira’s “favorite” dad creating a rift between Jira and her surviving dad, Noah brilliantly played by Stef Tovar as they search to find a way to navigate the waters of chaos, bitterness, blame and grief in its wake. A tragic story beautifully told and performed.

9. Writers’ Theatre, The Real Thing, directed by Michael Halberstam, offered the complete package from its innovative staging to its outstanding acting.  Tom Stoppard’s dialogue and characters were bigger than life bringing another winner to this consistently high-quality performing company that was deemed the “best company in the nation” by the Wall Street Journal for their fine interpretations of classic and contemporary theater.

10. en route offered a unique form of theater that gave its audience a chance to participate and observe our city like no other. The centerpiece of Chicago’s summer tourism initiative Urban Excursions partnered with Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater for this outstanding piece of theater created  by Australian company one step at a time like this.

Runners up: The Caretaker (Writer’s Theatre), A Christmas Carol (Goodman Theatre), Frost/Nixon (Timeline Theatre), Middletown (Steppenwolf), Porgy and Bess (Court Theatre).

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