Over the last year, I’ve seen a lot of theater. I’ve seen musicals and plays, great shows and horrifyingly bad shows, shows I’ve continued thinking about for weeks and remarkably unmemorable shows. I’ve seen 20+ shows across Chicago, New York, and London & I’ve been a season ticket holder at the Goodman Theater and the Porchlight Theater Company in Chicago.
So, here’s the first part of my review, featuring some of the lowlights of the last year of theater.
Most notable in the bottom half of the list is that there are, surprisingly, some huge Broadway hits & time and tested crowdpleasers mixed in with some smaller first-time world premiere productions that didn’t quite hit the mark. So, let’s get started.
20. Uncle Vanya (Rating: 2/5)
Chicago, Goodman Theater, February 2017
Uncle Vanya is a Chekov play first performed in 1897 at the Moscow Art Theater. For those unfamiliar with Chekov’s writing, as I was, be prepared for an evening of existential angst. The play follows the lives of the family and friends of an elderly professor & his much younger wife, as they visit their countryside estate in the middle of nowhere Russia. The play features love triangles and plenty of contemplation of the ennui of provincial life.
The actors in the Chicago production did a fine job of conveying their pining, heartache, and misery. My critique is largely with the book and direction of the show. This was a work in translation that the translator took time to adapt to contemporary speak, to render it more relatable to today’s audience. However, it missed the mark in its execution of the latter. The direction faltered in setting stakes for the audience to care about these characters’ wants and desires. It was only part-way through the second act, that I found myself beginning to empathize with these characters; through most of the first act, I was left wondering who these people were, why their stories mattered, and what I was meant to take away. There was strong potential for what could have been done with this text, but it just didn’t deliver.
19. In the Heights (Rating: 2/5)
London, King’s Cross Theatre, October 2016
In the Heights was the first Broadway musical that Lin Manuel Miranda wrote and starred in. This show makes two appearances on my list (see part 2 to read my review of the Chicago production), as I was fortunate to see two productions of this show in the past year.
In the Heights chronicles two days in the lives of a jumble of families and friends in the largely latino neighborhood of Washington Heights, in New York City. It opens with Nina, the daughter of a taxi dispatch service owner, Mr. Rosario, coming home from her first year at Stanford, with a heavy heart and a secret she’s been keeping from her family. The stories of Usnavi, the charmingly awkward bodega owner; his best friend, Benny, who falls for his boss’ daughter; Vanessa, the high-maintenance hair stylist with big dreams; the patient and hard-working, Abuela Claudia, and others are interwoven artfully in this beautiful tale of hope, love, and a neighborhood in transition.
With that rave opening, I can see why it might be surprising that the London production is ranked #19 on my list. The London production was disappointing for several reasons – foremost, because of the blatant whitewashing. While virtually all the characters in this play are people of color, only a handful of the cast actually reflected this diversity on stage. Particularly for a musical that is expressly highlighting the everyday struggles of minority communities in a neighborhood in Manhattan, it is especially tone-deaf to have so many of the leads portrayed by white actors instead.
Casting aside, the choreography and staging were innovative and put its distinctive production stamp on the show. The singing talent of the cast was also quite strong – they certainly did not lack the musical chops. Where the performance faltered was in its authenticity. Actors slipped in and out of their American accents, reminding the viewer that they were, in fact, watching this in London; Spanish lyrics were frequently flubbed; and Nina’s central story was underwhelming at best. Her yearning, big dreams, and wrestling with her identity as a second-generation immigrant were absent.
Overall, while the show was visually beautiful and provided an entertaining evening, the deep structural issues with the casting and direction led to an inauthentic and flat portrait of this vibrant community in Washington Heights.
18. Marry Me a Little (Rating: 3/5)
Chicago, Porchlight Theater, March 2017
Marry Me a Little is a revue of Steven Sondheim’s greatest hits, strung together to tell the story of two neighbors who meet and fall in & out of love. As a disclaimer: going into this show, I was not all that familiar with most of Sondheim’s hits. I loved Into the Woods, but that was where my knowledge of his repertoire ended. I admit, this does color my review. Had I been more familiar with the music, I can imagine enjoying this show more.
The performance itself, by both actors, was quite strong. They were both phenomenal powerhouses whose voices filled the room and sent goosebumps up and down your arms. Where this show faltered was in its direction — it wasn’t until half an hour in that I began to feel like I knew what the plot was about or where the story was going. Throughout the show, I struggled to make connections between what they were singing and where each song was trying to take the plot along to. Perhaps had I been more familiar with the music, I may have spent less time focusing on the lyrics itself. However, my biggest critique is that I left the theater entirely unsure what message they wanted me to go home with.
Next time, I’ll share some of my favorites and highlights from the top 5 shows I’ve seen this past year. Stay tuned for more soon!