Phew, 2011 was quite a year in Chicago theater. As the year comes to a close, ready for a quick tour back through the newsworthy highlights?
The Black Ensemble Theater bowed a gorgeous, $19 million new home on the North Side. Stage 773 on Belmont Avenue unveiled a sparkling renovation. The Chicago Center for the Performing Arts on Green Street, which audiences seemed congenitally unable to find, was converted from a theater complex into a church.
Lookingglass Theatre won the 2011 Tony Award for excellence in regional theater and almost its entire ensemble showed up at the New York ceremony, cheering from the back of the room.
"Grease" finally came home to Chicago and got its original grit back; "The Original Grease" played this summer at American Theater Company. Andrew Hinderaker's "Suicide, Incorporated" went to New York. So did Jessie Mueller for the Broadway revival of "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever." "Funk It Up About Nothin,'" the latest rappin' Shakespeare show from the Q Brothers, went all the way from Navy Pier to Australia. Tim Supple's "One Thousand and One Nights" could not get its Arab actors U.S. visas in time to come to Chicago.
The world of improvisation and sketch comedy mourned the death of several of its Chicago pioneers. Mary Scruggs, a beloved teacher of comedic improv and a gifted adapter, died in January at age 46. Just a few weeks later, Joyce Sloane, unofficial mother of the Second City, died at 80. Josephine Forsberg, the founder of the Players Workshop of the Second City, completed the trio of losses.
Playwright Lanford Wilson died just as the Steppenwolf was opening his "The Hot L Baltimore." Arthur Laurents died, but the tour of his last revival of "West Side Story" was a worthy tribute. And Douglas Alan Mann, former artistic director of the Chicago Theatre Company and a pioneer of black theater in Chicago, not to mention a mentor to countless actors, writers and directors, died of cancer in April at 58. And then there was the May death of Mickey Grossman, an Chicago-style agent, adored by clients.
Shattered Globe Theatre, a venerable troupe that had appeared to be in pieces, said it was coming back.
Chicago audiences were transfixed by the story of the courageous, persecuted actors of the Belarus Free Theatre, who were brought to Chicago (along with their "Being Harold Pinter") by a hastily arranged consortium of local arts and educational institutions, all determined that Chicago should be their safe haven. And so it was.
The winds of change blew Rahm Emanuel into the Chicago mayor's office; a few days after his election, he showed up unannounced at Theater Wit to see "A Twist of Water." He talked about the play, and the importance of the theater in Chicago, for months afterward.
Similar breezes also buoyed Chay Yew, who took over Victory Gardens Theater; Timothy Douglas, who took charge of the Remy Bumppo Theatre Company; and Michael Weber, who plans to re-energize Porchlight Music Theatre.
Robots assisted with a delightful onstage wedding proposal at "Heddatron," part of 2011's Garage Rep at Steppenwolf. Subscriptions sank all across the country, but not in Chicago. The National Theatre of Scotland's "Black Watch" brought theatergoers to the historic Broadway Armory. Alice Ripley was stunning on the opening night of the touring production of "Next to Normal," and then barely did any more shows, infuriating Broadway in Chicago audiences. Oprah Winfrey made her protracted exit, with the mother of all live shows.
Steve Martin and Martin Short offered us fascinating conversation on the stage of the Chicago Theatre for the Just for Laughs fest; David Henry Hwang celebrated mistranslation on the stage of the Goodman Theatre with "Chinglish." The Cirque du Soleil brought us bugs, in a tent, with "Ovo." The Auditorium Theatre brought us, bizarrely, a Jake and Elwood tribute from across the pond with "The All New Original Tribute to the Blues Brothers." It didn't do so well.
The risk-tolerant Paramount Theatre in Aurora said it would produce its own shows and did very well, packing the historic 1,797-seat theater with two excellent musicals — "My Fair Lady" and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" — with hopes for more in 2012.
And even as the entire city of Chicago closed down for a blizzard — and the Loop was almost deserted — a group of international ballroom dancers burned up the floor of the Bank of America Theatre for a tiny audience of foolhardy idiots. On the traumatic way home, and following the "L" ride from hell, one theater critic nearly went down in a snowdrift for good. But he got back up and lived to write about another year.
Happy holidays. And how was your year?
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