(Note: We have a separate list of our favorite productions of Stephen Sondheim musicals.)
Our favorite musicals have books that run the gamut from lame to Pulitzer Prize-worthy, but they all have great scores, appropriately charming or meaningful lyrics, and inspiration for creative design and direction. Some of our favorite productions are brilliantly executed conventional takes on the material, but a few represent radical re-imaginings that deepened the experience.
(in chronological order by date of the musical’s premiere)
Quick links: Porgy and Bess Oklahoma Wonderful Town How to Succeed She Loves Me Ain’t Misbehavin’ City of Angels And the World Goes ‘Round Smokey Joe’s Cafe Ragtime Parade Producers Last Five Years Hairspray Light in the Piazza Spamalot Adding Machine Young Frankenstein Northanger Abbey Honorable Mention (11 shows)
Porgy and Bess by Gershwin: The visually arresting and emotion-packed production of Porgy and Bess at Court Theatre in 2011 was an intimate re-envisioning of the Gershwin classic, led by director Charles Newell. The intimacy was intensified by music director Doug Peck’s orchestral reduction (for a sextet), more reminiscent of a jazz club than an opera hall, and the perfect accompaniment for a cast packed with performers equally adept at singing and acting. Accordingly, Bethany Thomas‘ rendition of “My Man’s Gone Now” was exquisite musically and fervently heart-rending. The same can be said of Alexis J. Rogers and Todd M. Kryger on “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” We’ve seen other productions of Porgy and Bess on a grander scale, but none with the emotional impact of this one.
Oklahoma! by Rodgers and Hammerstein: The production of Oklahoma! that we saw by American Theater Company in 2007 was an intimate re-envisioning, with director Damon Kiely focusing on authentic storytelling and musical director Malcom Ruhl re-orchestrating the score for a four-piece bluegrass band. The set, by Jacqueline and Richard Penrod, was equally ingenious. As the show began, the stage contained only a large covered wagon. But during the course of Matt Brumlow’s great rendition of Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ the wagon opened up and was transformed into Laurey and Aunt Eller’s farmhouse (accompanied by oohs and ahs from the audience). Everything about this production created a vivid visual and aural picture that beautifully supported the storytelling. Interesting note: The understudy for Curly, played by Matt Brumlow, was Greg Matthew Anderson; for Laurey, played by Katie Jeep, was Jess Godwin; and for Aunt Eller, played by Suzanne Petri, was Danni Smith.
We also loved the more conventional staging at Paramount in 2015, which featured subtly acted and vocally resplendent lead performances by Colte Julian (as Curly) and Allison Sill (as Laurey).
Wonderful Town by Bernstein, Comden, and Green: We had been looking forward to Goodman Theatre’s 2016 production of Wonderful Town for months—and even more so after catching the sneak preview (in the Walgreen’s on the corner of State and Randolph, of all places!) with leads Bri Sudia and Lauren Molina singing selections from the production. When we finally saw the show, it exceeded our sky-high expectations. See our list of definitive productions if you’re interested in why this production of Wonderful Town is the only musical we included in the “definitive” list.
How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying by Frank Loesser: We’ve seen this show in many different guises, from small stages to St. Louis Muny (which seats 11,000). But our favorite was at Drury Lane Oakbrook in 2000, with Gary Griffin directing a dream cast that included Guy Adkins (J. Pierrepont Finch), Heidi Kettering (Rosemary), Rod Thomas (Bud Frump), Joel Hatch (Biggley), Alene Robertson (Smitty), and Roger Mueller (Wally Womper).
She Loves Me by Bock and Harnick: Our introduction to this charming musical was watching the TV movie on PBS in our postage-stamp-sized room in the Barbizon-Plaza Hotel on Central Park South in 1979 (our first trip to New York City). We fell in love with the musical, and have seen several memorable productions, such as the 2004 Theatre at the Center version. But our favorite was the intimate 2010 production at Writers Theatre, with Jessie Mueller as Amalia, part of a remarkable cast. At the time, we didn’t know that Jessie would be making her debut on Broadway the following year, in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever with Harry Connick. (And, as they say, the rest is history.) In 2016, we saw a delightful college production of She Loves Me at Loyola University, with a Mueller-esque Amalia, played by Molly Hernandez. The 2017 production at Marriott Theatre featured an inspired pairing as Amalia and Georg (Elizabeth Telford and Alex Goodrich), our all-time favorite Sipos (James Earl Jones II), and an ensemble full of Chicago musical theatre leads.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ by Fats Waller: Ain’t Misbehavin’ was the first show we saw on Broadway (in 1979), and we’ve seen other fabulous performances, including the incomparable E. Faye Butler at Arena Stage in 2003 and Goodman Theatre in 2008, as well as the 2014 Milwaukee Rep production featuring the spectacular Bethany Thomas (one of our favorite performers, and the reason we drove to Milwaukee for the show). Another memorable production was by Zoo Company in Champaign, Illinois, in 2003, featuring a stellar performance by Jon Michael Hill (while a freshman at the University of Illinois). But our special favorite is the production by Porchlight Music Theatre in 2014 (and remounted in 2015). The music and dancing were superb, but Porchlight’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ had an added dimension, simultaneously capturing both the exuberance and the underlying pain of life in 1930s Harlem. In addition to Jeff Awards for director Brenda Didier and the overall production, an Artistic Specialization Jeff went to pianist/conductor Austin Cook, whose on-stage presence and musicianship took the show to another level.
City of Angels by Coleman and Zippel: Producing this musical is not for the faint of heart. It requires quickly changeable sets and clear storytelling that distinguishes unambiguously between the world of a mystery writer working on the screenplay of his book, and the milieu of
the film itself. The audience has to be on its toes too, to catch the deliciously clever lyrics written by David Zippel and the wisecracking film noir dialog courtesy of Larry Gelbart. When Drury Lane Oakbrook produced the show in 1993, producer Tony DeSantis closed the show early due to confused attendees and poor sales, and substituted a revival of the more audience-accessible Phantom of the Opera to finish out the run. We were lucky enough to see that 1993 production of City of Angels at Drury Lane before it closed, and except for the annoyingly noisy set changes, loved the show. The superlative cast included Larry Yando, Brian Mani, Nancy Voigts, Kathy Taylor, and Jonathan Weir. Director Gary Griffin and music director Tom Sivak both received Jeff Award nominations for the production, and we still remember it fondly as not only a great show, but also our first theatre outing to Chicagoland (a year earlier than our first venture to Chicago proper, where we saw A Little Night Music at the Goodman Theatre when it was still on the campus of the Art Institute).
Twenty-two years after what one critic referred to as the “1993 Drury Lane disaster,” we saw a concert staging of City of Angels as part of the Porchlight Revisits series, directed by Christopher Pazdernik with music direction by Aaron Benham. The task of differentiating between the writer’s world and the film’s world is infinitely more difficult in a staged reading than in a full production (where sets and costumes provide context and clues for the audience), but the cast and crew pulled off a clearly told, beautifully sung delight. We loved the production and the cast so much that we wondered how the upcoming full production at Marriott Theatre could top it.
Five months later, in late 2015, we found that the Marriott Theatre’s City of Angels was equally captivating. The cast, directed by Nick Bowling, was a who’s who of Chicago musical theatre greats, with standout performances not only in the lead roles but throughout (for example, Meghan Murphy as Donna/Oolie, and Gabriel Ruiz as Munoz). Also, special kudos go to Marriott for tackling this show’s challenging staging in their “in the round” theatre—successfully!
And the World Goes ‘Round by Kander and Ebb: At the time we saw this Kander and Ebb revue in 2000 at Drury Lane Evergreen Park, we were fairly new to Chicago theatre and hadn’t previously seen any of the cast members: Roberta Duchak, Heidi Kettenring, Rachel Rockwell, Curt Dale Clark, and Aaron Thielen. Obviously, all had major careers ahead of them! But it’s fun to remember when we saw them on roller skates (performing “The Rink”) and hitting every song out of the park in this exuberant revue. Interesting note: Director Marc Robin won a Jeff Award for this show, and the cast received a nomination for best ensemble. When the Jeff nominations were originally announced, Chicago Tribune critic Richard Christiansen wrote an interesting article, including others who were “unpardonably omitted from the list” of nominees.
Smokey Joe’s Cafe by Leiber and Stoller: Jukebox musicals often yield a pleasant evening at the theatre, but rarely a memorable experience with much depth. We’ve seen two instances, however, where a creative director and design team came up with a way to give the songs a believable shared context that heightened their significance and impact. One was the Brenda Didier-directed Ain’t Misbehavin’ by Porchlight Music Theatre in 2014 (set in a 1940’s rent party); the other was Smokey Joe’s Cafe at Drury Lane Oakbrook in 2016, directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge. She and set designer Kevin Depinet recreated a slice of Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market, where for about a 100 years people have met to buy, sell, socialize, and make music. And nine phenomenally talented cast members executed the concept perfectly. In his Chicago Tribune review, Chris Jones noted that Donica Lynn’s rendition of “Fools Fall in Love” was worth the trip, and indeed it was. But in this production, every number was worth the trip, and every performer unforgettable.
Another noteworthy Smokey Joe’s Cafe was the 2012 Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre staging, directed and choreographed by Brenda Didier. As is often the case at Theo Ubique, it featured a cast of talented young performers soon to become prominent on Chicago’s stages, such as Sydney Charles, Justin Adair, and Jaymes Osborne.
Ragtime by Ahrens and Flaherty: E. L. Doctorow’s bestselling novel embodies passions so deep that mere words would not suffice; it had to become a musical. The original Broadway production in 1998 had an $11M budget, with fireworks and a Model T driven on stage. Despite 13 Tony nominations and 834 performances, it did not turn a profit. A Broadway revival in 2009 closed after only 65 performances, but subsequently received seven Tony nominations. All the regional productions we have seen have been excellent, with four positively soul-stirring.
Ragtime at Drury Lane Oakbrook in 2010 was directed and choreographed by Rachel Rockwell, with music direction by Roberta Duchak. Coalhouse Walker, Jr. was played by Quentin Earl Darrington, who had played the same role in the 2009 Broadway revival; at the performance we attended, Coalhouse was sublimely sung and acted by his understudy, James Earl Jones II (more details in our list of favorite understudy performances). Sarah was played by Valisia LeKae, also from Broadway, who would go on to play Diana Ross in Motown the Musical. Cory Goodrich and Mark David Kaplan as Mother and Tateh were the heart and soul of the show.
At the Shaw Festival in 2012, director Jackie Maxwell’s Ragtime was memorable for its electrifying musical numbers (music direction by Paul Sportelli). Particularly unforgettable were Thom Allison as Coalhouse singing “Make Them Hear You,” and Coalhouse and Sarah (played by Alana Hibbert) on “Wheels of a Dream.”
Ragtime at Milwaukee Rep in 2013 was directed by Mark Clements and music directed by Dan Kazemi, with a multi-talented cast from Milwaukee, Chicago, and New York. Carmen Cusack (who had played Dot in Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s Sunday in the Park with George the previous year) played Mother. Father was played by David Hess, who in 2015 had two impressive performances at Marriott Theatre (as Georges in La Cage aux Folles and John Hickam in October Sky). Bethany Thomas was also part of the amazing cast in this production that captured both the individual tragedies and the broader implications of the powerful material.
In contrast to the grand-scale productions we had seen previously, Griffin Theatre Company’s 2017 Ragtime took place in the more intimate Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage, and featured new orchestrations by Matt Deitchman for two pianos and a wind instrument. Music direction (by Jermaine Hill and Ellen Morris), choreography (by William Carlos Angulo), costume design (by Rachel Sypniewski), and scenic design (by William Boles) were all exquisite—and properly scaled for this chamber-sized production. But what made Griffin’s Ragtime so special for us was the intimacy of director Scott Weinstein’s staging, where the actors and audience were frequently sharing the same space and all part of the unfolding story. More than once during the show, we felt as if we were sitting in the midst of a glorious choir, as the performers sang while encircling the stage, standing among the audience members. The staging made the inspired performances of Denzel Tsopnang and Katherine Thomas (as Coalhouse and Sarah), Laura McClain (as Mother), Jason Richards (as Tateh), and the rest of the 20-member cast seem even more intense and heartrending. Interesting note: Another indication of the excellence of this production was the who’s who of Chicago musical theatre talent in the audience the night we saw the show, including Donica Lynn and Bri Sudia, among others.
Parade by Jason Robert Brown: Our introduction to this moving piece was the 2010 Dolphin Show at Northwestern (one of our favorite Northwestern shows). Then in 2014, we attended a tenth-anniversary staged reading of Parade by Bailiwick, which reunited performers from their original landmark production of a decade earlier (some actors traveled many miles to participate in the one-night-only performance). A few months later, we saw a fully staged production by BoHo Theatre (directed by Linda Fortunato with musical direction by Matt Deitchman) which brought to life the story of Leo Frank, a Jew living in Atlanta in 1913 who was falsely accused of a horrific crime.
In 2017, we were overwhelmed by director Gary Griffin’s production of Parade at Writers Theatre, in which the exquisite cast, music direction (by Michael Mahler), and staging (scenic design by Scott Davis) combined to capture the very personal story of Leo Frank alongside the inhumanity of those who viewed him impersonally—as a convenient stereotype rather than an individual. We were struck once again by the distressing continuing relevance of this story of racism and intolerance.
The Producers by Mel Brooks: We’ve seen over a dozen different productions of this brilliantly hilarious show, and all have been well done—an amazing feat considering the challenges inherent in casting and staging this show. The seating capacity of the venues where we’ve seen The Producers has ranged from 147 seats (NightBlue Theatre at Stage 773 in 2015) to 4,500 (Fox Theatre in St. Louis in 2002). The 2001 pre-Broadway run in Chicago with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick was in the 2,344-seat Cadillac Palace, but from the third balcony where we sat it seemed like more. Director L. Walter Stearns’ intimate Mercury Theatre production in 2016 was made especially memorable by the sparkling lead performances of Matt Crowle, Bill Larkin, and Allison Sill, supported by an aptly manic and fully committed ensemble, with music direction by Eugene Dizon, and choreography by Brigitte Ditmars. Interesting note: Two performances of The Producers (at NightBlue and at Mercury Theatre) made our list of favorite understudy performances.
The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown: Our first visit to Northlight Theatre was in 2003 (for Blues in the Night), unfortunately not in time to catch the 2001 premiere of The Last Five Years there. A low-budget, high-talent production by La Costa Theatre in 2006 was our introduction to the show, as well as our first Jason Robert Brown musical, and we loved it. The music is varied in style and requires accomplished acting in addition to musical chops. The story of a couple’s relationship is told with an interesting twist: he relates his version in chronological order, while she reveals hers in reverse chronological order; the two meet only in the middle, at the time of their wedding. The two-person piece presents significant challenges to the performers and to the band, so imagine the degree of difficulty when in 2013 Kokandy Productions tackled the material with Allison Hendrix and Jim DeSelm acting, singing, and accompanying each other on piano. John D. Glover directed, and Kim Lawson and Lilianna Wosko added violin and cello. One “problematic” element of this musical has always been that one of the two main characters is off-stage essentially half the time, so they and the audience have to repeatedly re-engage. In the Kokandy production, both actors were onstage continuously, always in character and always expressing feelings, whether singing or at the piano. We found that it significantly heightened the emotional impact.
Hairspray by Shaiman and Wittman: Between 2009 and 2016, we saw five productions of Hairspray, and all were terrific. First up was the Marriott Theatre production in 2009, distinguished by the phenomenal cast. Marc Robin directed and choreographed.
Our next Hairspray was in 2011 at the Station Theatre in Urbana, Illinois, just two months after their amazing production of The Light in the Piazza (described below). What set this production apart was the direction by Dallas Street, whose creativity and attention to detail (along with good casting decisions) meant that every joke landed, every sight gag was perfect, and every ounce of humor and message in the script hit home. It’s little wonder that every performance sold out.
The calling card of Hairspray at Drury Lane Oakbrook in 2012 was the dancing, complemented by powerful singing. Tammy Mader directed and choreographed the production, with a stellar cast that seemed to be having the time of their lives.
A similarly effective, high-energy production was at the Little Theatre on the Square in Sullivan, Illinois, in 2015, directed by Kevin Long with a strong cast that included Gilbert Domally as Seaweed. The following year, he played the same role in the large-scale Paramount Theatre production in 2016, with another dynamite cast and striking direction and choreography by Amber Mak.
The Light in the Piazza by Guettel and Lucas: Although we’ve seen this glorious show in several large houses, our favorite production was Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre’s 2012 staging. They did an ingenious job of shoe-horning an Italian piazza into their tiny performance space in the No Exit Cafe, but even more remarkable was the singing (accompanied by first-rate acting). This was the first time we had seen Kelli Harrington (playing Margaret Johnson) and Justin Adair (playing Fabrizio Naccarelli), both of whom won Jeff Awards for their performances. They’re now among our favorite musical performers, along with Jeff-nominated Rachel Klippel, who played Clara. Elizabeth Lanza, another of our favorites, was part of the stellar supporting cast.
Another production of The Light in the Piazza that was especially memorable was at the Station Theatre in Urbana, Illinois, in 2011. They turned a small budget set into a creative triumph, thanks to scenic designer Rachel Witt-Callahan’s ingenuity in using dozens of painted umbrellas to recreate the ambiance of a piazza. Her call for volunteers went out over Facebook just a few weeks before the show: “We’ve got an umbrella project happening. We are replacing the fabric portion of the umbrellas with muslin and painting Italian works of art on them. If you have any interest in helping to sew umbrella covers or paint on them let me know ASAP. I’ve already got a small stash of umbrellas and could get them to you at your convenience.” It worked to perfection! Interesting note: The lead role of Margaret Johnson was beautifully played by Dawn Harris, who subsequently directed an outstanding University of Illinois student production of the show in 2017 (which made our list of favorite college productions).
Spamalot by Idle and du Prez: We’ve seen several excellent productions of Spamalot, but the one that was the most special to us was at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace in 2011. The curtain call at the end of the fabulous performance was long and enthusiastic, but when the applause died down, the actors didn’t leave the stage. Instead, David Kortemeier (King Arthur) stepped forward and said that there was a special guest with us that day, at which point Eric Idle emerged from the audience and came on stage. He was funny and gracious, and took a well deserved bow. Interesting note: Drury Lane used the costumes from the original West End production, designed by Tim Hatley.
Adding Machine: A Musical by Schmidt and Loewith: This musical version of Elmer Rice’s 1923 expressionist masterpiece is devilishly difficult. Multi-Jeff Award winner and phenomenal singer Kelli Harrington played Mrs. Zero in The Hypocrites 2016 production, and her playbill bio included this reference to the show’s challenges: “Odds are she will sing the music right at least once, and it will undoubtedly be tonight’s performance.” Indeed, Adding Machine demands a consummate confluence of fierce acting, virtuoso singing, and expressive movement to depict the monotony and dehumanizing effect of being a cog in a corporate wheel only to be tossed aside by the encroachment of automation. Unfortunately, we missed its 2007 premiere directed by David Cromer at Next Theatre, but we were thrilled to catch The Hypocrites stunning production in 2016, featuring a superbly talented and committed ensemble led by galvanic performances by Patrick Du Laney and Harrington as Mr. and Mrs. Zero, with direction by Geoff Button, musical direction by Matt Deitchman, and choreography by Katie Spelman. The striking, machine-like scenic design by Lauren Nigiri made brilliant use of the Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage. Interesting note: The original creative team of Schmidt, Loewith, and Cromer reunited to attend a performance of The Hypocrites new production.
Young Frankenstein by Mel Brooks: This musical version of the extremely funny hit movie by Mel Brooks had a decent run on Broadway, but wasn’t viewed as completely successful. Director William Osetek’s inspired choices for the lead roles at Drury Lane Oakbrook in 2014 were just what the piece needed. Devin DeSantis (Dr. Frederick Frankenstein), Allison Sill (Inga), Jeff Dumas (Igor), Paula Scrofano (Frau Blücher), Johanna McKenzie Miller (Elizabeth Benning), and Travis Taylor (The Monster) knew just how far to push the madcap comedy, and executed Tammy Mader’s choreography and Roberta Duchak’s music direction perfectly. Anchoring the production was Kevin Depinet’s set design, which aptly captured the spirit of classic horror movies.
Northanger Abbey with book by Robert Kauzlaric based on the Jane Austen novel, and music and lyrics by George Howe: The challenges of bringing this new musical to the stage must have been formidable: adapting the classic novel; determining where and how music might enhance the story-telling; writing a gorgeous score with never-trite lyrics; staging grand houses, carriage rides, and more in Lifeline’s intimate low-tech space; and finding the cast and director to bring the whole affair to life. Lifeline’s Northanger Abbey in 2016, directed by Elise Kauzlaric, excelled on all fronts while fully capturing the charm and satire of Austen’s novel. We hope this musical will have many more productions in the future, although it’s hard to imagine it could ever be more delightful than it was with Lifeline’s cast and artistic team.
Trouble in Tahiti by Leonard Bernstein: Next Theatre in 2008 (cast included James Rank and Brandon Dahlquist; director Jason Loewith’s musical The Adding Machine, with composer Josh Schmidt, had premiered at Next the previous year); Shaw Festival in 2012
Fiorello! by Bock and Harnick: TimeLine Theatre Company in 2006 and 2008 (PJ Powers and Rebecca Finnegan led a dynamite cast; Nick Bowling directed)
42nd Street by Warren and Dubin: Theatre at the Center in 2012 (with Larry Adams, Paula Scrofano, and Dale Benson)
Little Shop of Horrors by Mencken and Ashman: Parkland College in 2000 (among other clever touches from director Dallas Street, when we first saw the Shoo-Wap Girls trio, each singer appeared to be wearing a classic 1960’s shift dress; but when they moved apart, it became clear that they were wearing a single dress—a great visual gag at the start of the show!); Awkward Pause 2013 (best ever skid row ambiance and fantastic cast, with Charlotte Mae Ellison as Audrey, directed by Jennifer Betancourt); American Blues Theatre in 2016 (amazing musical direction by Austin Cook, with Dara Cameron and Michael Mahler as the perfect Audrey and Seymour)
Urinetown: The Musical by Hollman and Kotis: Produced by Blue Dog Productions at the Mercury Theater in 2006; and an even more intimate production by BoHo Theatre in 2017 that used every inch of the tiny Box Theatre at Stage 773
At Wit’s End by Michael Duff and Cheryl Coons: Northlight Theatre in 2003 (In a fascinating two-part interview with newmusicaltheatre.com, lyricist and book writer Coons talked about creating musicals and doing so in Chicago rather than New York)
Caroline, or Change by Kushner and Tesori: Court Theatre in 2008 (highlighted by E. Faye Butler’s superb singing and acting)
Mary Poppins by Sherman and Sherman: Paramount Theatre in 2014 (with Emily Rohm as Mary and Matt Crowle as Bert, directed by Rachel Rockwell, and a big finish with Mary flying all the way from the stage to the rear balcony in the huge 1,885-seat theatre)
Improbable Frequency by Riordan and Bell Helicopter: Strawdog Theatre Company in 2013 (our favorite: wordplay, good-time music, quantum mechanics, and Strawdog’s talented actors, singers, and musicians)
Next to Normal by Kitt and Yorkey: Drury Lane in 2013 (Susie McMonagle, Rod Thomas, and Colte Julian under William Osetek’s Jeff Award-winning direction); Madkap Productions in 2015 (an incredibly moving and intimate production with Whitney Morse and Brian Zealand leading a uniformly outstanding cast); BoHo Theatre in 2016 (Colette Todd, Donterrio Johnson, Gilbert Domally, Ciera Dawn, Bradley Atkinson, and Peter Robel in an impeccably sung and acted production, with faultless direction by Linda Fortunato and music direction by Ellen K. Morris; seeing this show was a deeply affecting and thought-provoking experience)