Think theater and chances are you think Broadway in New York or the West End in London. Those places got nothin’ on Chicago.
As a Chicago native and a theater lover, it never occurred to me that it would news to the rest of the world that Chicago theater is on par with the best in the world. But apparently some people don’t know this. There's no doubt in my mind Chicago has world class theater.
So here’s a rundown of the Chicago theater scene:
The Best of Chicago Theater
The best known is the venerable Goodman Theatre. The Goodman, a perennial venue for actor Brian Dennehy, and the Chicago home of playwright August Wilson as well as the venue for the annual production of the holiday classic, “A Christmas Carol,” is always worth a look. Dennehy and Nathan Lane are on deck to star in “The Iceman Cometh” beginning in April 2012.
For a more cutting edge performance, head to Steppenwolf in Lincoln Park. This theater, which counts among its ensemble members John Malkovich, Gary Cole, Martha Plimpton, Laurie Metcalf, Joan Allen, John Mahoney and co-founder Gary Sinise, currently is presenting “Clybourne Park,” the 2011Pulitzer Prize winning play written by Bruce Norris. It’s a riveting show that looks at racism and gentrification from both sides. The first act is set in 1959 as an aging white couple has sold their Chicago home to the first black family to move into the neighborhood. The second act fast-forwards 50 years to a young white urban pioneer couple who wants to buy the same house, now in shambles, tear it down and build a McMansion in what is now an all-black neighborhood.
Steppenwolf also offers a “Steppenwolf for Young Adults” series on Saturdays that shouldn’t be missed if you have a mature tween or teen interested in theater. Be warned, though: This is not theater for kids. Rather it is theater for young people who want to be treated like they matter. The series has tackled “A Separate Peace,” Shakespeare and other weighty topics.
Broadway in Chicago
If you really need to think you’re seeing a Broadway production, Chicago has that too. Broadway in Chicago brings a regular string of touring companies to play in some of the city’s most beautiful venues in the Loop. This is where you’ll find the classics such as “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Cats,” and kid-friendly shows such as “Mary Poppins.” It’s also the source for family pleasers such as “Riverdance,” the not-to-be-missed tap-dancing spectacular.
Currently, the amazing Carrie Fisher is on stage at the Bank of America Theater (18 W. Monroe, formerly called the Schubert Theater) with her one-woman show, “Wishful Drinking.” It’s a laugh-out-loud look at life as the troubled and mentally-ill daughter of Hollywood royalty. (The scene where she uses a pointer and a board filled with photos of her parents, Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, and their many spouses, children and significant others to explain the connections between them all is worth the price of admission.)
The show is in town for a short two-week run that ends Oct. 16, but she goes back on the road in 2012 with stops in Baltimore (Jan 31-Feb 12 at the Hippodrome Theatre), Dayton, Ohio, (April 10-22 at the Victoria Theatre) and Houston (May 15-20 at Sarofim Hall – The Hobby Center). Sure, you already read the book or saw it on HBO. But the live performance is better. Really.
Off-Loop Chicago Theater
The city also is home to a wealth of small theaters. Some, such as the Lookingglass Theatre Company, co-founded by David Schwimmer, the guy from “Friends,” have an established following. Others, such as Pine Box Theater, a tiny venue on the North Side, produce profound theater (this summer’s “A Girl with the Sun in Her Eyes” was incredibly powerful) but struggle to make it financially.
Others are home to perennial favorites like the always popular Blue Man Group, which performs its news show at the Briar Street Theatre.
Shakespeare gets a Chicago spin at the award-winning Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, which also runs a series aimed at kids that is a great way to introduce children to the wonders of the Bard.
If you love Tina Fey, laughed at John Belushi, or adore Steve Colbert, then you have to come to Chicago to see where all that funny stuff started. Second City, the world-renowned improve theater, has comedy shows seven nights a week.
Children’s Theater in Chicago
Chicago is home to an incredible array of quality children’s theater, ranging from kid-focused productions at the major venues to kid-specific theater companies. Among my favorites are Chicago Kids Company, which engages preschoolers in the action, and the Chicago Children’s Theatre, which offers gentle and sweet shows for babies such as “Dot and Ziggy” and “Goodnight Moon.”
If you're looking for a deal, check out Hot Tix for half-price tickets to many shows in Chicago.