Chicago theater proved a difficult business in the winter and spring of 2022. The shows have had to contend with ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks, nervous and unpredictable viewers, and an overall lack of stability and security that are so crucial to a business that requires so much upfront investment.
While many more shows have opened in recent months than in the meager previous two years, it’s clear to anyone paying attention that Chicago theater needs more support to recover.
Which brings us to summer. It seems unlikely that all cylinders will fire as we had all hoped, but warmer weather and lighter evenings are raising hopes for a recovery. We’ve selected 10 shows that excite us and might lure you out of the house for a night out or a matinee. This is our first Summer Preview since 2019 and we’re excited to be back. It’s worth noting that Chicago is trying out four new musicals this summer, all of which are heading towards Broadway.
And one more note. We suspended star ratings with our theater reviews in 2020, feeling they were not appropriate while theaters recovered from the pandemic, but many readers wrote to say how important they were to their choice of going to the theatre . So we’re bringing them back, another hint of a return to normalcy.
“choir boy”: Written by the highly accomplished Steppenwolf Theater cast member, Tarell Alvin McCraney (“Moonlight”), this play actually premiered at Chicago’s Raven Theater in 2017. “There is so much complexity and beauty in ‘Choir Boy’,” I wrote at the time, “that one longs for a more complex, more fluid and, above all, more risk-taking staging”. So here’s hoping that Kent Gash’s upcoming Steppenwolf production, which follows a New York series that received a Tony nomination, is that production. “Choir Boy” follows Pharus Young, a senior at the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, an institution dedicated to building “strong, ethical black men,” where he hopes to become the finest leader of the school’s renowned choir in its 50-year history. June 16-July 24 at the Steppenwolf Theater Company, 1650 N. Halsted St.; 312-335-1650 and www.steppenwolf.org
“Cullud Wattah”: 2021 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize winner, Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s “Cullud Wattah,” explores three generations of Black women living through the Flint, Michigan contaminated water crisis that erupted in 2014 and resulted in multiple lawsuits Lead poisoning led to the resignation of several officers, 15 criminal charges and a federal public health emergency. “Culled wattah” was well received at New York’s Public Theater last fall; Victory Gardens presents the Chicago premiere of a Midwestern tale set in a long-struggling industrial city just 280 miles from Chicago. Lili-Anne Brown leads a cast that includes Demetra Dee, Brianna Buckley, Ireon Roach, Renée Lockett and Sydney Charles. June 11 through July 17 at the Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-871-3000 or Victorygardens.org
“The devil Wears Prada”: This high-profile Broadway tryout marks the debut of former Steppenwolf Theater Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro into the world of big-stakes Broadway musicals based on hit films – and in this case, the project also includes an original score of no less as Elton John. Produced by Kevin McCollum, the show will also feature lyrics by Shaina Taub and a book by the witty Paul Rudnick. The 2006 film, starring Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway, is based on Lauren Weisberger’s 2003 bestseller of the same name and has grossed more than $300 million worldwide. As the film was part love letter to American Vogue editor and fashion icon Anna Wintour and part synopsis of her intimidating power and crushing personality, you can expect fantastic fashion on stage. Beth Leavel plays the famous Streep role of Miranda Priestly with Taylor Iman Jones as Andy Sachs. 19 Jul-Aug 21 at the James M. Nederlander Theater, 24 W. Randolph St.; 800-775-2000 and www.broadwayinchicago.com
“Fences”: August Wilson’s famous play about the complex relationship between a veteran of baseball’s Negro leagues and his aspiring son gets a fresh staging in Chicago at the American Blues Theater under the direction of innovative director Monty Cole. While this drama, set in 1950s Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh, may be the great writer’s best-known work, expect Cole to view it with new eyes in an intimate space, as he did with 2018’s “Hamlet” in Venom Theater did. The widely acclaimed Kamal Bolden plays the main character of Troy, Shanesia Davis is Rose and Ajax Dontavius is Cory. Note that “Fences” follows another Wilson revival in Chicago: Court Theater’s new production of “Two Trains Running”. 1 Jul-Aug 6 at Theater Witz, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.; (773) 975-8150 and www.americanbluestheater.com
“God Magic”: Prepare the way of the Lord! Take it day by day! We plow the fields and spread! The famous Day-Glo, a hippie-style musical based on the New Testament, is almost 50 years old, and Theo Ubique, the intimate music company on the Chicago-Evanston border, has a fresh Chicago-style production on its hands Honoring the rightly beloved show, with book by John-Michael Tebelak and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, including lyrical updates for the 2011 Broadway revival. Christopher Pazdernik directs, with musical direction from the much admired Jeremy Ramey. Theo Ubique is a cabaret style venue serving drinks in the theatre. June 10-July 31 at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, 721 Howard St., Evanston; 773-939-4101 and theo-u.com
“Jesus Christ Superstar”: The legendary rock opera by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber is touring again in honor of its 50th anniversary. This is in fact the same production that played at the Lyric Opera House in 2018 after its debut at the Open Air Theater in Regents Park, London. I was a huge fan of Timothy Sheader’s staging, a reinterpretation of this groundbreaking work for an audience of millennials and maybe even some of their grandparents who still remember “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” “Gethsemane,” and of course, ” superstars”. Working with a largely different cast here, Sheader has ditched the retro hippie dippy concept associated with the film and hasn’t imposed a crazy concept on the play. It’s a fresh look at a great musical pastiche and, assuming the pandemic hasn’t spoiled things, as good a look at this show as you can see right now. July 19-31 at the Cadillac Palace Theater, 151 W. Randolph St.; 800-775-2000 and broadwayinticago.com
“It came from space”: It Came From Outer Space is a new musical comedy based on the popular 1953 science fiction film about an amateur astronomer and school teacher who discovers an alien ship in Chicago Shakespeare in the 2011 musical Murder for Two Ray Bradbury’s story has now been translated into a hilarious musical full of physical comedy, says Chicago Shakespeare. Expect a cast led by Christopher Kale Jones and featuring mostly Chicago-based performers playing “humans, aliens and everything in between,” all led by Milwaukee-based Laura Braza. June 22–24 July at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave.; 312-595-5600 and chicagoshakes.com
“Life After”: A new, intimate summer musical at the Goodman Theatre, Britta Johnson’s Life After follows the fate of a 16-year-old girl grieving the loss of her famous father (who wrote self-help books) and examines exactly what happened on the night her life so changed. After a Toronto premiere, the semi-autobiographical show was subsequently well received in a production at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater in 2019, but the Goodman has a brand new production with a different cast and director. New York is now clearly a destination. Canadian Johnson wrote the book and lyrics and composed the music for a small live orchestra; Annie Tippe is now directing. The show stars Samantha Williams and acclaimed actor and singer Paul Alexander Nolan. June 11-July 17 at the Goodman Theater, 170 N. Dearborn St.; 312-443-3800 and goodmantheatre.org
“Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”: It’s hard to imagine a musical more prepared for a fun summer outing than Priscilla, the feisty tuner based on Stephan Elliott’s cult 1994 film about two drag queens and a transgender woman who experience different adventures through the Australian outback. The stage version, which bowed Down Under in 2006 and hit Broadway in 2011, is a jukebox experience jam-packed with numbers like “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”, “Go West!” and “It’s Raining Men.” All that passion and these sands are cast in Lakeview’s intimate Mercury Theater under the direction and choreography of the Mercury’s new Artistic Director, Christopher Chase Carter. July 15 – September 11 at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N Southport Ave.; 773-360-7365 and mercurytheaterchicago.com
“Roller skates”Aimed at Broadway, this brand new musical is getting an independent commercial production from producer, writer and lyricist Christine Rea in a 600-seat jewel box theater in the Fine Arts Building that many Chicagoans either never knew or now forget: The Studebaker Theatre. Featuring music and lyrics by Rea’s husband, Rick Briskin, “Skates” is a “coming-of-age story with a twist” set at a fictional roller rink, Windy City Skates, in both 1994 and 1977. It follows a successful rock star resuming her 12-year-old self. The rink setting is based on the producer’s experience with the real Lynwood Roller Rink, which still exists in Lynwood. Skates was originally due to open at the Royal George Theater in March 2020 but was of course hit by pandemic-related delays. The show still stars American Idol couple Diana DeGarmo and Ace Young, along with many Chicagoans, and the creative team, led by director Brenda Didier, remains the same. Rea says the show is “a love letter to Chicago.” May 24-Aug. 28 at the Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan Ave.; 312-753-3210 or skatethemusical.com
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.