Chicago Shows We Wish We’d Seen

Theatre is ephemeral, and if you miss a show, it’s gone forever. So we’re a little sad about the shows in this “wish we’d seen” list. Some are legendary productions we’ve heard others remember fondly; some were (probably) once-in-a-lifetime chances to see rarely produced plays; and still others included breakthrough performances by artists we now admire. So partly to explain why these great productions aren’t included elsewhere in our lists of favorites, we’ll take a deep breath and list some shows we missed our chance to see.

(in alphabetical order)

Scene from Next Theatre's production of Adding Machine: A Musical
Scene from Next Theatre’s production of Adding Machine: A Musical (photo by Michael Brosilow)

Adding Machine: A Musical by Schmidt and Loewith, produced by Next Theatre in 2007, directed by David Cromer: Chris Jones observed in his Trib review of the 2007 production that a musical adaptation of Elmer Rice’s expressionist classic “has a commercial ring only Mel Brooks’ Max Bialystock could love.” So we didn’t hold out much hope of ever seeing this musical that is still discussed and revered by many who saw it at Next Theatre—until the Hypocrites staged it in 2016, directed by Geoff Button. We adored the 2016 production, and would have been fascinated to see the original, quite different take on the musical (so we’re told) as well.

Scene from Strawdog's Detective Story
Scene from Strawdog’s Detective Story (photo by Chris Ocken)

Detective Story by Sidney Kingsley, produced by Strawdog Theatre in 2003: Three years before we saw our first show at Strawdog (Marathon ’33), they tackled Detective Story, chronicling the many human dramas playing out over several hours in a New York police station. Director Shade Murray’s cast included Tom Hickey, Rich Cotovsky, David Cromer, and 26 other Chicago actors embodying the gritty characters in this slice-of-life play. A remount at Theater on the Lake followed, as did Jeff Awards for Production, Director, Ensemble, and Scenic Design (Ray Vlcek). Unfortunately, our unfamiliarity with Strawdog (and Theater on the Lake) at that time, and the fact that we’d seen what we thought was an untoppable production of Detective Story at the Shaw Festival the previous year, kept us from seeing the Strawdog version. To this day, when we’re trying to decide whether to see yet another production of a show we’ve loved somewhere else, our first thought is “don’t make the Detective Story mistake again!”

Nina O'Keefe and her robotic scene partner in Sideshow Theatre's Heddatron
Nina O’Keefe and her robotic scene partner in Sideshow Theatre’s Heddatron

Heddatron by Elizabeth Meriwether, produced by Sideshow Theatre Company at the Steppenwolf Garage in 2011: With our penchant for absurdist theatre and for plays about theatre, we would have undoubtedly loved Heddatron, but we got wind of it after the run was already sold out. Sideshow produced this story of a housewife kidnapped by robots and transported to South America to perform the title role in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, in collaboration with ChiBots, the Chicago Area Robotics Group (the New York Times published an interesting article on what it was like to create and then interact with the robots). By all accounts, Jonathan L. Green’s direction and the performances by Nina O’Keefe in the lead, the rest of the ensemble, and the robots were all phenomenal. The robots were even pressed into service at one of the curtain calls to assist in a surprise marriage proposal to Nina from her future husband. An interesting first: Heddatron was the first time Sideshow had offered a touch tour for audience members who were blind, enabling them to become familiar with the environment of the play they were about to experience. Lisi Stoessel’s scenic design had to incorporate multiple settings and do some tricks not normally seen on stage, so the touch tour’s degree of difficulty was high. Apparently the creative team and touch tour facilitators did a great job, because to this day we hear people talk fondly about the Heddatron touch tour!

House and Garden by Alan Ayckbourn, produced by Goodman Theatre in 2001: Opening only a few months after the Goodman moved to its current home, House and Garden was a perfect choice to show off the new facility’s two stages. Ayckbourn’s clever work is actually two plays, taking place simultaneously and having the same cast (the two stages have to be nearby so that the actors can travel between them in time for their entrances throughout the performance). In this American premiere, director Robert Falls staged House in the Albert and Garden in the Owen. Alas, when we tried to get tickets, the run was already sold out. Not only do we wonder what it would have been like to experience the tandem plays, but we also imagine that the rehearsals must have been singularly entertaining! Interesting note: One year after House and Garden had its American premiere at the Goodman, the New York premiere took place at the Manhattan Theater Club. The New York Times review was amusingly entitled “Indoor-Outdoor Living for the Fleet of Foot.” Also interesting: During the run of Goodman’s House and Garden, the Washington Post published an article on the state of Chicago theatre (focusing on Goodman, Chicago Shakespeare, and Steppenwolf), entitled “In Chicago, A Bold 2nd Act.”

Shane Kenyon and Cassandra Bissell in Mary's Wedding
Shane Kenyon and Cassandra Bissell in Mary’s Wedding (photo by Mark Campbell)

Mary’s Wedding by Stephen Massicotte, produced by Rivendell Theatre Ensemble in 2010, directed by Mark Ulrich: Now we know that when we see Cassandra Bissell or Shane Kenyon announced in a cast list, we need to make plans to see the show. Unfortunately, we didn’t yet know that in 2010—when we didn’t study our playbills as closely as we do now—even though we’d already seen Shane at Steppenwolf (in Betrayal and Dead Man’s Cell Phone) and Cassandra at Court Theatre (in Hamlet and Arcadia). Interesting note: We’ve seen Cassandra in another historical two-hander: Amelia, which made our list of plays we’d like to see in Chicago.

John Reeger, Kevin Gudahl, and Kate Fry in Court's My Fair Lady
John Reeger, Kevin Gudahl, and Kate Fry in Court’s My Fair Lady

My Fair Lady by Lerner and Loewe, produced by Court Theatre in 2002: This show broke the theatre’s 47-year-old record for most tickets sold in a day, but unfortunately we were not among the purchasers. Even with a three-week extension, we still didn’t take the bait, and thus missed an intimate, and apparently wonderful, production of the classic musical, directed by Gary Griffin. The cast, which included many of our current favorites, was led by Kevin Gudahl and Kate Fry (whom we’d loved three years earlier as Cinderella in Into the Woods at St. Louis Rep). But alas, we did not discover the joys of Court Theatre’s scaled-down, incisive, and illuminating musicals until seeing their Guys and Dolls in 2004. 

Summer Naomi Smart in Sweet Charity
Summer Naomi Smart in Sweet Charity

Sweet Charity by Coleman and Fields, produced by Drury Lane Oakbrook in 2008: By 2008, we’d already seen almost 20 shows at Drury Lane Oakbrook, so how did we miss Sweet Charity and its wonderful Cy Coleman score—and a break-out Jeff Award-winning performance by Summer Naomi Smart in the title role? Eleven of the 12 reviews in Theatre in Chicago’s Review Roundup were “highly recommended,” so the writing was on the wall, had we chosen to read it.

Scene from Rivendell's These Shining Lives
Scene from Rivendell’s These Shining Lives (photo by Anthony Robert LaPenna)

These Shining Lives by Melanie Marnich, produced by Rivendell Theatre Ensemble in 2009: Like Mary’s Wedding, we missed These Shining Lives because Rivendell wasn’t on our radar screen until a couple of years later. The play, based on the true story of women in the 1920s who contracted radium poisoning through their work at the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois, tackles big issues through the poignant stories of four women. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see director Rachel Walshe and the much-lauded cast bring these stories to life at Rivendell. We did subsequently see Heartland Theatre’s fine production in 2012, and Northlight Theatre’s 2015 musical version entitled Shining Lives: A Musical (book/lyrics by Jessica Thebus, music by Andre Pluess and Amanda Dehnert), in which Jessica Thebus directed a perfect cast of actor/musicians (Jess Godwin, Alex Goodrich, Erik Hellman, Johanna McKenzie Miller, Matt Mueller, Bri Sudia, and Tiffany Topol).

And …

Scene from Hit the Wall by The Inconvenience
Hit the Wall by The Inconvenience (photo by Ryan Bourque)
Scene from Quality of Life by the Den Theatre
Quality of Life by the Den Theatre (photo by Joe Mazza)

We’ve also had two near misses, where we failed to see shows during their initial runs, but caught remounts at Theater on the LakeHit the Wall by The Inconvenience in 2012 and Quality of Life by the Den Theatre in 2013. Interestingly, both shows are included in our life-changing theatre experiences page.

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