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'The Showtune Mosh Pit' for December 31st, 2014


by Paul W. Thompson

Overheard last weekend under the showtune video screens at Sidetrack and The Call:

It's the Top Ten Hot Topix for the second half of 2014!! You know you've been waiting for them. Er, it. And here it is, the latest semi-annual round-up of the things that have been on our collective minds lately. So, without further ado, let's get to the countdown, shall we? What's been buzzing, peeps? How did July through December treat you?

10. "Amazing Grace." This pre-Broadway tryout without any firm New York plans was the most high-profile world premiere musical show in Chicago during the second half of the year. Written mostly by a complete unknown, and starring two young Broadway stars virtually unknown outside of theatrical circles (Josh Young and Erin Mackey), the story of the man who wrote the text to the most beloved hymn Christendom has produced may be a hard sell on the east coast. But we sure talked about it, and debated both its merits and its shortcomings during its October run at the Bank Of America Theatre. It got New York's attention while it was here. But was it enough to get it life beyond Monroe Street?


9. "Peter Pan Live!" This follow-up to last year's live telecast of "The Sound Of Music" on NBC was very much talked about, and quickly forgotten, it seems. Was Allison Williams too stiff? Christopher Walken too quirky? And what about Christian Borle's arms? At least Kelli O'Hara's voice came through for us, and Taylor Louderman proved to be a real talent after all. But oh, those pirates. And those lost and very grown-up boys. And the...Native Americans? Is the whole English panto vibe of the show just too much for contemporary audiences? Is it the bipolar nature of the score? The hoary script? Too many commercials? Ah, well. But it was rebroadcast just over a week later, so there's that.


8. "Parade." Jason Robert Brown's first Tony-winning outing returned to our local stages this fall in a production by the Bohemian Theatre Ensemble that played at Theater Wit for a month. Reviews were somewhat split for this non-Equity effort on some difficult material, but the talent of the cast was never in question. Jim DeSelm and Sarah Bockel led a cast of committed and full-voiced young performers in a story that resonated with the racial issues that fill our headlines even now. Director Linda Fortunato brought it to our doorsteps. Well played, Boho.


7. "Titanic." Running longer than "Parade," but in the very same building, was the Griffin Theatre Company production of the Tony-winning "Titanic," in an authorized, scaled-down and reconceived version seen almost nowhere else before now. National attention was focused on the intimate staging by Scott Weinstein of a piece known for its grand and expensive original settings and large cast. Surprise (but not really)! This show is about the people, not the boat, and the haunting music by Maury Yeston that illuminates their fates. And yes, Chicago has the talent to populate multiple "storefront" productions of challenging musicals at the same time. Oh, yes....


6. "Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown." Chicago theaters have a long history of providing a launchpad for regional productions of New York shows, whether hits or misses there. And so it was with the fall production of this 2010 David Yazbek effort, which floundered in Manhattan despite a starry cast led by Sherie Rene Scott, Patti LuPone, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Laura Benanti. The Theatre At The Center in Munster, Indiana, was the site of the show's first post-Broadway production, and is the model for the upcoming London premiere. If the production wasn't entirely successful, the show was given the best chance possible, and that even with the burden of opening in the shadow of the tragic death of scheduled co-star Bernie Yvon, a local stage star of many years and even more shows. The cast of the production honored him by singing Stephen Sondheim's "No One It Alone" at the Joseph Jefferson Awards show, the day after their production shuttered. Class and style, all the way.


5."Newsies" and "Cinderella." Spotlighting Chicago's tourist industry, as well as its love of family-friendly entertainment at holiday time, this pair of first-class touring productions landed in the Loop in early December, where both shows will reside until this Sunday, January 4th. One show aimed at young boys and one at young girls, this was a marketing department's dream of a dual booking. "Newsies" has reportedly sold EXTREMELY well, so much so as to spark rumors of a fast re-booking of the Alan Menken tuner. The stage version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein live television event from 1957 (take THAT, "Peter Pan") may have sold less well, but had some stiff competition. And both productions took part in a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS while in town, filled with family and friends of castmembers who descended on Chi-town for some holiday get-togethers. Family-friendly, indeed.


4. "Into The Woods." The long-awaited and very hyped Hollywood adaptation of the beloved 1987 tuner by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine burst onto multiplex screens on Christmas Day, giving this Rob Marshall film the highest-grossing opening weekend of a musical film adaptation ever. Folks have been hotly debating the finest details of the finished product for months, but for the last week the debates have been epic. Thank you, Walt Disney, Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, James Corden and Emily Blunt (and all) for giving us something to text and post about while we put toys together and microwave our leftovers. We will be debating this film for the rest of our lives. No, really.


3. "On The Town." The late summer Marriott Theatre production of this famous but virtually unknown Leonard Bernstein musical from the dawn of the Golden Age burst onto our consciousness like sunrise over a warship docked in the Hudson River in the 1940s. Or is that the setting of the beginning and ending of the musical comedy answer to "Oklahoma!," and its stance as a serious "musical play?" No matter. We were entranced by the ballets (originally conceived by Jerome Robbins), the hilarious songs (lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green) and the remarkable cast that director David H. Bell assembled for our pleasure. New York has a well-received revival of the material even now. But we had one that was both epic and intimate, fresh and revelatory.


2. "The Wild Party." Yet another remarkable non-Equity run that opened in October, this one a production of Bailiwick Chicago that ran at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater in the upstairs Richard Christiansen space. And what a production! Michael John LaChiusa's musical based on the epic Jazz Age poem is a challenge in every respect, but director Brenda Didier's troops made mincemeat of naysayers and believers of us all by grabbing this material by its throat and never letting up. Most observers fell over themselves with accolades for the performances, and for the sheer gall of the company to set itself so successfully toward presenting something so daring, riveting, intense and overwhelming.


1. "Sweeney Todd." This Equity production that opened at Stage 773 in (yes) October set the stage for Porchlight Music Theatre's season-long concentration on the works of Stephen Sondheim. With Rebecca Finnegan reprising her Jeff Award-winning role as Mrs. Lovett, alongside the first-ever Sweeney of journeyman star David Girolmo (both under the tutelage of director Michael Weber and music director Doug Peck), how could this epic production fail to triumph? An evocative physical production and savvy casting of supporting players sealed the deal. We were hooked, and never regretted it. With the Chicago premiere of "Sondheim On Sondheim" coming up, followed by a rare professional staging of "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum," Porchlight is proving once again that the composer of "Into The Woods" is as deserving as he is ubiquitous. And we love it. Every jaw-dropping minute of it.


So that's it! That's what we in the Mosh Pit have been talking about the most over the past six months. Whew! But we're not out of the woods just yet! Voting for the 5th Annual BroadwayWorld Chicago Awards ends tonight at midnight! And you know what happens one week from today, don't you? It's the BroadwayWorld Chicago Awards Celebration!

The Celebration will take place for the 5th year in a row at The Call Bar in the Andersonville neighborhood, on Wednesday, January 7, 2015. We'll be there from 8:00 pm till midnight (21+ only, please), where winners will be revealed, certificates handed out, and video screens watched, played by "Curtains Up Wednesday" VJ Michael Hogan. As a special bonus, from 9:00-10:00 pm we'll be handing out certificates during the broadcast of the new episode of "American Horror Story," this one featuring guest star and Tony Award winner, Neil Patrick Harris. Showtune videos begin at 10:00. The fun and the speeches will last from 8:00 pm until almost midnight. We've got 36 categories, y'all!

Nominees will wear yellow ribbons, casts will reunite, and all facets of the Chicagoland theater community will come together for a relaxing night of fun with friends, fans and theater folk alike. We'll also have a special segment honoring those the community has lost during the last year, including the tragic death this week of Joffrey Ballet publicist Eric Eatherly.

The Call is located at 1547 N. Bryn Mawr Avenue, between Clark and Ashland. Come one, come all, to The Call! We'll be celebrating the winners, the nominees and the whole theater season with like-minded folks. You make the party a great one!


So that's that! Happy New Year! And I'll see you under the video screens.....-PWT

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From This Author Paul W. Thompson

Paul W. Thompson, a contributor to BroadwayWorld.com since 2007, is a Chicago-based singer, actor, musical director, pianist, vocal coach, composer and commentator. His career as (read more...)