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Stephen Sondheim: The 10 best Chicago productions

Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

CHICAGO — Stephen Sondheim’s death Friday left a gaping hole in the hearts of those who work in the Chicago theater. The iconic composer and lyricist visited relatively often (including a 2011 visit to receive the Tribune Literary Prize, an appearance to support the Chicago Public Library Foundation and many visits to the Ravinia Festival and Chicago Shakespeare Theater), but his shows were enriching us all with yet more frequency.

His themes were often a perfect match for Chicago sensibilities and talent.

Here, in reverse chronological order and in memory of the great man, are my 10 most memorable Sondheim productions in and around Chicago over the last 25 years.

—“Saturday Night” at Pegasus Players, directed by Gary Griffin (May, 1999): This small Chicago theater company developed a warm relationship with Sondheim. So much so that he handed over the rights to his long-mothballed first musical from 1955, and even agreed to pen a couple of extra songs for the subsequent humble production on the campus of Truman College. No less than Jonathan Tunick showed up in Chicago to work on the new orchestrations. The production cemented a close relationship between Sondheim and the director Gary Griffin, whom the composer told me he greatly admired on several occasions. With Ian Brennan, Elizabeth Sayre Yeats and Philip Dawkins in the cast, the low-budget show was rough around the edges but still a thrill to see.

—“Sunday in the Park With George” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, directed by Griffin (November, 2002): With a cast starring Robert Petkoff as George and Andrea Burns as Dot, Griffin directed a superb “Sunday in the Park” inside the 200-seat studio at Chicago Shakespeare. Shorn of spectacle, the entire show was staged on a narrow, wooden walkway with the audience seated on two sides. A knockout supporting cast included Marilynn Bogetich, Cory Goodrich, Annabel Armour and Sean Allan Krill. The audience was just inches away from the action, a 180-degree turn from most prior productions that celebrated the show’s fascinating with visual imagery. But it worked beautifully.

—“Bounce” at Goodman Theatre, directed by Hal Prince (June 2003): The world premiere of the long-in-gestation show that later became “Road Show,” “Bounce” hit the Goodman with a stunner of a cast. Richard Kind and Howard McGillin played the two Mizner brothers, hucksters best known for founding the city of Boca Raton, Florida. The supporting cast included Michele Pauk, Deanna Dunagan, Harriet Nzinga Plumpp and the great Fred Zimmerman. The show, the first Prince/Sondheim collaboration in more than 20 years, would later change a great deal, but it still was the premiere of what I think to be Sondheim’s most revealing work about creativity, life and love. Yes, even more so than “Sunday in the Park.” And one of his most beautiful songs, “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened,” was already there.

—“Sweeney Todd” at Porchlight Theatre, directed by L. Walter Stearns (September 2004): In this intimate affair at the Theatre Building Chicago, Michael Aaron Lindner turned in a stunner of a performance as the demon barber of Fleet Street, playing opposite an equally fantastic Rebecca Finnegan as Mrs. Lovett. “Sure, this piece always supports lots of sallow-faced makeup, hollowed-out cheeks, bug-eyed expressions and spat-out lines, but those are easy choices, and the work’s deeper truths lie elsewhere,” I wrote at the time. “You just have to stare into Lindner’s scared eyes to find some of them.” And find them you did. Better yet, Peter Pohlhammer’s uncommonly scary version of Judge Turpin, turned the nasty man into a twisted version of the self-help guru Anthony Robbins. I’d never been so happy to see that character get the shave of his life.

—“Gypsy” at Ravinia Festival, directed by Lonny Price (August 2006): Everyone in theater knew that Patti LuPone was gunning to play Mama Rose on Broadway and that Arthur Laurents needed some persuasion. But in the summer of 2006, she had her chance in what was supposed to be a concert-style staging at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park. Concert style? Not with Patti involved. As I wrote at the time: “To the palpable amazement of many in a packed pavilion, this past weekend’s installment in an ongoing Stephen Sondheim celebration was neither a concert-style nor a semi-staged affair; there was nary a music stand nor a tuxedo in the place. For better or worse, the Ravinia Festival audience got a full-blown, every-line-spoken revival of “Gypsy.” It was, indeed, a knockout, all of the creatives showed to see what was going on, and LuPone subsequently got her chance two years later in one of the best Broadway revivals of the era.

 

—“Passion” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, directed by Griffin (October 2007): Ana Gasteyer showed up to play Fosca in the dark musical penned by Sondheim and James Lapine in 1994, an exploration of obsessive love. Gasteyer had just played Elphaba in “Wicked.” “In many ways,” I wrote, “Fosca is Elphaba writ tragic — with a more complicated Sondheim score. At one point, the soldiers even speculate that she just fell off her broomstick.” This was another of the great Sondheim-in-Chicago performances, supported by a cast that also included Kathy Voytko and Mike Nussbaum. And it was further confirmation that Griffin was Chicago’s foremost Sondheim director.

—“Merrily We Roll Along” at Music Theatre Company, directed by Jessica Redish(April 2011): “Merrily We Roll Along” is one of the several Sondheim shows about working in the theater; more specifically here, about how promise, friendship and collaboration can turn into competitiveness and bitter rivalry. Redish’s production, both friendly and intense, was staged in the humble Karger Center in Highland Park with a cast of real-life friends in Jessie Mueller, Alan Schmucker, Jerrod Zimmerman and Dara Cameron, mostly young graduates of Northwestern University. That depth of musical knowledge underpinned a strikingly deep staging, showcasing a gorgeous musical performance from young Mueller, an actress who had real-life Broadway stardom in her future.

—“Follies” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, directed by Griffin (October 2011): A human-scaled version of the Sondheim/James Goldman musical about a reunion of former, showgirls facing their own mortality, this superb production of “Follies” seemed to traffic in real pain. Great performances abounded: Caroline O’Connor as a devastating Phyllis; Susan Moniz as a sad-eyed, ever-hopeful Sally; Hollis Resnik giving perhaps the best performance of her long Chicago career as Carlotta. “Resnik’s “I’m Still Here” is no blast of existential defiance,” I wrote at the time. “Rather, Resnik feels the underlying heartbeat of the song, leans into its bouncy refrain and bats back most of its inherent lyrical challenges, as if the crises of which the character sings were mere inconveniences. It is an unconventional but wholly thrilling and complex rendition.”

—“A Little Night Music,” Writers Theatre, directed by William Brown (May 2012): Perhaps the best production ever staged at Writers Theatre, Brown’s intimate, chamber-style “A Little Night Music” at the old back-of-the-bookstore theater in Glencoe was much less airy and pretentious than the typical staging. Rather, it was human, revealing, honest, avowedly Chicago-style. The superb cast included Shannon Cochran as Desiree, Dunagan as Madame Armfeldt and, as Petra, a luminous Brianna Borger, who seemed far more desperate and wise than most who have played that role. This was a “Night Music” to which we could easily relate and easily understand that the clowns already are here.

—“Gypsy,” Porchlight Theatre, directed by Michael Weber (September 2018): Like LuPone, the actress E. Faye Butler had been pushing to play Mama Rose for years. Weber offered up that chance in a blistering production that re-imagined Rose and her troop as part of the Black vaudeville circuit, trying to move on up and getting blocked at every turn. With Daryn Whitney Harrell as Louise and Aalon Smith as surely the best Baby June in the history of the show, everything worked beautifully and Butler gave a hurricane performance of a lifetime.

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