sixtyandme logo
We are community supported and may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site. Learn more

Summer Theater Is Hot

By Ann Boland August 19, 2023 Lifestyle

Used to be that smaller live theaters did not run year-round. That changed in the last five years. Ok, there is nothing scheduled for August, but Chicago keeps producing excellent theater while drumming up season subscriptions for 2023/24. Sister-in-law Norah and I are all signed up, even spending a bit more money at Goodman Theatre to move from the balcony to the orchestra. We’re both sick of climbing stairs.

For those of you who bargain hunt, as I do, when you purchase season tickets talk directly to the box office. Ask for the Previews and ask for a senior discount. That brings our ticket cost down to about $25 per production. I heard from a friend that many theaters offer unsold tickets for as low as $20 on the day of performance if you call before noon. I’m rarely that spontaneous.

The Who’s Tommy, The Musical

The musical is produced by Goodman Theater, Music and Lyrics by Pete Townshend, Book by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff, starring Ali Louis Bourzgui, Alision Luff, and Adam Jacobs. With a cast of 37, a dance ensemble of 17, and an orchestra of 9. Album originally produced in 1969, opera debuted at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1992.

So much fun! I’d never seen the original, nor listened to the score. So, The Who’s Tommy just poured over me with great music, exceptional choreography, clean and evocative staging, meaningful acting and showstopping singing. Goodman Theater pulled out the stops with 63 performers and heaven only knows how much back-stage support. The dancers appeared in different costumes in each of their many scenes. Tommy appears as a child, adolescent, teen, and adult.

The book, the music, and lyrics were reviewed and refined for this production by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff, the original creators. McAnuff introduced our performance. There was such honest pride in his words and his admiration for the achievement of the Goodman. “I am stunned and overwhelmed that the journey continues.”

The story is unchanged – childhood trauma causes Tommy to become blind, deaf, and dumb. As he grows, he is molested by a trusted uncle, bullied by playmates and schoolmates, seduced by drugs. He finds salvation in his uncanny pinball skills, gaining confidence, overcoming menacing opponents. Ultimately, he regains his faculties through counseling and reconciling with his father. It is a happy ending.

The pinball wizard Tommy Walker is played by Ali Louis Bourzgui. Broadway regular Adam Jacobs (Aladdin, Les Misérables and The Lion King) plays his father, Captain Walker, and Alison Luff (she played in Waitress and Matilda on Broadway) is his mother, Mrs. Walker.

John Ambrosino (Les Misérables on Broadway) is the abusive Uncle Ernie; Bobby Conte (Company on Broadway) is Cousin Kevin, who introduces Tommy to pinball; and Broadway star Christina Sajous is the Acid Queen (a role played by Tina Turner in the 1975 Ken Russell movie). You will be seeing lots more on stage and screen from ingénue Ali Louis Bourzgui.

The movement and dance elements are fresh and innovative. Chicago choreographer Lorin Laterro of the Evanston Actors Gymnasium completely overhauled the 1992 Broadway version. Several dancers traded off for singing cameos, which added to the power of the ensemble.

Though I’ve seen no official announcement, word is that Goodman’s production of The Who’s Tommy is headed for Broadway. See it!

Another Marriage

The play is produced by Steppenwolf Theatre, written by Kate Arrington, Directed by Terry Kinney, starring Kan Barford, July Greer, Caroline Neff and Nicole Scimeca.

It’s a treat to see plays generated by Chicago’s amazing theater community – Steppenwolf’s production of Another Marriage, is a debut play written by ensemble member Kate Arrington. The cast features Judy Greer (prominent Hollywood character actress, trained in Chicago), and regular players Caroline Neff, Ian Barford, and making her Steppenwolf debut, Nocile Scimeca.

The plot is reassuringly simple: writers Nick and Sunny fall in love in college and marry. Nick, from a writing dynasty, enjoys huge success, Sunny grapples with writer’s block, motherhood and envy. Nick’s fangirl, Macassidy, ends up stealing him away. Co-parenting ensues, anger, retribution, reconciliation, and all’s well that ends well.

Note that Macassidy, played by Caroline Neff has an aura similar to that of TV series smash Natasha Lyonne (Orange Is the New Black, Poker Face). Her stage presence commands attention, but Neff does a fine job of not stealing the show. Actually, each performer seems perfectly cast.

We experienced Another Marriage in Steppenwolf’s newer Ensemble Theater in the round. It seats 400, but any seat is never more than 20 feet away from the stage. We go for cheap seats, near the top, and they are excellent. This play featured a unique turning circular cut-out mid-stage hosting many of the scenes. Scenes in rotation gave every audience member front and center experience often lacking “in the round.”

This new play is less expensive than most to produce, and you will likely see it appearing in local theaters in 2024. It’s a tight play, and you can feel the love.  

Antonio’s Song: I Was Dreaming of a Son

Produced by Goodman Theatre, written by Dael Orlandersmith and Antonia Edwards Suarez, Directed by Mark Clements, starring Antonio Edwards Suarez.

Set in Bushwick Brooklyn, Antonio’s Song tells why he reacted violently to a mild disturbance caused by his five-year-old son, for whom Antonio was child sitting in Antonio’s writing studio. His aura of quiet productivity is broken by childish demands, and he violently slaps and shouts at his son. Why does he react violently (though Antonio’s transgression is common among parents)?

Antonio dances and speaks his history in an Irish/Puerto Rican/Black family – in a ghetto with gang members as playmates. He struggles with his identity among Black gangs, Latino gangs, his gun-selling father, his crippled, bitter mother, his “pass for white” sister. He’s small, he loves to dance, he questions his sexual orientation, he does not fit in.

It’s ballet that provides a trajectory for his talent and ambition after he sees a video starring Baryshnikov on PBS. I could find nothing in Suarez’s bio about how he rose from that discovery to an MFA from Harvard, but let’s hear it for PBS!

This play made me “feel good” for the success of an underprivileged American. But not every ghetto boy has a complete family, that taunted yet supported him. Nor does every boy have the talent of Suarez as a writer/actor/dancer and the determination to succeed. May he long be a role-model for following generations.

No Man’s Land

Produced by Steppenwolf Theatre, written by Harold Pinter, starring Jeff Perry, Mark Ulrick, Samuel Roukin, and Jon Hudson, directed by Les Waters.

This is a difficult play in the best of time. And we attended the first performance starring Mark Ulrich who stepped up from under-study at the last minute and continued in the role for the run of the play. He was amazing, dealing with Pinter’s long, rambling monologues. Kudos to a real professional.

The play was staged as a vehicle for Steppenwolf founder and ensemble player, Jeff Perry, now 68 years old. No Man’s Land has negligible plot: an old man (Jeff Perry), drinking at his club, asks a slightly younger man (Mark Ulrich) who he may or may not know from the past, to accompany him home where they continue drinking and conversing.

The old man is wealthy – the stage is a static, a stark library sitting room in a large house. All the furniture, save one side chair, is gathered in the middle of the set. The dialogue reveals a possible sharing of lovers in the past, but it’s not certain. Two much younger men live in the home, appearing to take care of the old man. Has he become their hostage? They clearly don’t like the new drinking partner. That’s about it, filled out by two hours of dialogue. Viva Pinter!

I saw this play in London in 2016 starring Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart. Nothing is going to top that production. There are several significant differences between the two productions, regardless of the cast. The London version was staged at the Wyndham Theatre in the West End. While this theater seats about 250 more than the Steppenwolf main theater, the stage itself is smaller, so the whole production seemed more intimate.

The accents and voice projection in the West End are all British, all the time. In Chicago, only one of the four performers was a native Brit, the other three assumed accents. Perhaps this affected their ability to project.

Players are rarely miked in the UK, acoustics in the old theaters are better. In the U.S., miking the actors is common, but not for this play. And they should have been. U.S. actors are not trained to project. We were sitting in the ninth row of a 10-row orchestra section (10 being the last row) and strained to hear the dialogue. Other people sitting near us heard nothing.

Direction of the London version was different – more menacing, evil lurking outside the library door. The menace came from the two young men. What was their hold over the old man? Homosexual? Stealing his money? Something was afoot. This was not emphasized by Les Waters’s direction.

I’m thinking the acoustics improved as the play ran. Reviews were positive. But reviewers are usually seated in the first five rows. I was disappointed, but my memories of the London production kept a smile on my face.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

What does summer theater look in your city/country? What plays have you seen to date? Which ones would you recommend?

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The Author

Ann Boland is committed to Chicago theater, opera, and arts. Involved as a theatre-goer since the early 80s, she’s witnessed firsthand the rise of Chicago's theater scene, its exceptional local talent, and the vigor of each new generation. To support her good and bad habits, Ann handles public relations for authors and the arts.

You Might Also Like