Local theaters made news in 2017 with acclaimed productions, controversial casting

Issues related to identity, race and gender loomed large on and off suburban and city stages in 2017. And as claims of sexual misconduct and harassment rocked the worlds of film, politics, television, music and publishing, Chicago-area theaters grappled with those issues as well.

Here's a look back at the year in theater news.

Three times, still charmed

The hits just keep on coming for Aurora's acclaimed Paramount Theatre, which earned top honors in the large musical category for the third time in as many years for its grimly majestic revival of "Sweeney Todd." The production, which starred 2017 Joseph Jefferson Award winner Paul-Jordan Jansen as demon barber Sweeney, boasted the dazzling visuals for which Paramount is becoming known.

The production also earned awards for director Jim Corti and music director Tom Vendafreddo, who conducted 19 instrumentalists and helped make "Sweeney Todd" one of the best-sounding productions of the year.

Courtesy of Liz LaurenAurora's Paramount Theatre made news with its all African-American production of "Jesus Christ Superstar."

Among Paramount's other contributions was its all African-American production of "Jesus Christ Superstar," the 1971 Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical chronicling Christ's final days. The combination of celebrity, politics and mob mentality that propels the musical proved timely, said Corti, who stated he "knew in his gut" the character of Jesus "needed the stature of an African-American man."

Fearless First Folio

First Folio Theatre's gender- and race-conscious casting of William Shakespeare's "As You Like It" generated complaints from some audience members who objected to the production's interracial and same-sex couples.

Executive director David Rice took to email last summer to address the issue publicly, defend director Skyler Schrempp's vision and clarify the Oak Brook theater's 20-year commitment to representing all community members.

Courtesy of Maia Rosenfield PhotographyFirst Folio Theatre in Oak Brook responded to criticism of its race- and gender-conscious casting of William Shakespeare's "As You Like It."

Rice, who founded the company with his late wife, Alison C. Vesely, said he recognized some decisions by First Folio's artistic team will prove controversial to some and inspiring to others. "The nature of art is that it will, in fact it should, engender discussion and even controversy," he wrote. "If it does not, we are not doing our job as artists."


• Writers Theatre in Glencoe premiered "Trevor," an endearing new musical with Broadway ambitions adapted from the 1994 Academy Award-winning short film about a 13-year-old boy recognizing his homosexuality.

• Jimmy Buffett's breezy jukebox tuner "Escape to Margaritaville," about an affable island troubadour romancing a workaholic environmental scientist, stopped briefly at Chicago's Oriental Theatre on its way to New York City.

• Long before its November premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre, "The Minutes," a fiercely funny new play by Tracy Letts, had secured a Broadway berth. Previews begin in February for the political dramedy.


After three decades at the helm of Chicago's Goodman Theatre, artistic director Robert Falls refuses to rest on his laurels. Falls celebrated his 30th anniversary with Goodman directing a revival of Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" and the premiere of Jim McGrath's "Pamplona," which never officially opened. (The production was suspended mid-performance opening night due to star Stacy Keach's illness.)

At 63, Falls has no plans to retire. "I don't have a lot of hobbies outside of working in the theater and telling stories," he said.

Meanwhile, director/producer/educator Steve Scott retired after 37 years with Goodman, during which he produced more than 200 shows. Scott - described by colleagues as an astute director and a great humanitarian - was instrumental in establishing Goodman's arts education department.

While retired, the 67-year-old said he intends to keep busy teaching and directing. To that end, he'll helm John Patrick Shanley's Ireland-set romance "Outside Mullingar" in May for Buffalo Theatre Ensemble in Glen Ellyn.

Mike Nussbaum, Chicago theater's elder statesman, turns 94 on Friday, Dec. 29. Reportedly the oldest working union actor according to the Actors' Equity Association, Nussbaum remains a vital and engaging leading man. He starred as Albert Einstein in Northlight Theatre's production of "Relativity" this year.

Eli Tokash played the titular role in "Trevor the Musical" in its world premiere at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. The show has Broadway ambitions. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Other changes

• Chicago Shakespeare Theater inaugurated The Yard, an impressive, flexible new space consisting of nine audience seating towers that can be arranged 12 different ways to accommodate up to 900 people.

• In September, Northlight Theatre unveiled plans for its proposed new home at 1700 Sherman Ave. in Evanston, where the company was founded in 1974. The fourth largest theater in the Chicago area, Northlight has called Skokie's North Shore Center for the Performing Arts home since 1997.

• Tony Award-winning playwright David Rabe joined the ensemble at The Gift Theatre, which premiered Rabe's "Good for Otto" in 2015.

• Philip Dawkins, Lydia Diamond, Rebecca Gilman, Brett Neveu and Laura Schellhardt were among the 10 midcareer playwrights named to the Greenhouse Theater Center's MC-10 Playwrights Ensemble, part of the theater's new play development initiative.

Hail and farewell

Several local theaters lost artists this year. Among them was director and former Elgin Community College instructor Terry Domschke, who operated by the credo: study, practice, pass it on. One of the architects of Elgin's Janus Theatre, Domschke directed for Janus and St. Charles' Steel Beam Theatre among others. He died in April at age 62.

Craig Birger, founder of Buffalo Theatre Ensemble and a longtime instructor at the College of DuPage, died in August at age 74. Described by BTE colleagues as a visionary, Birger served as artistic director from 1986 to 2000 and remained a subscriber and donor to the Glen Ellyn theater.

Steppenwolf Theatre bid farewell to three longtime members, including Glenne Headly, an ensemble member from 1979 to 2005, who died in June at age 62.

The formidable Mariann Mayberry, a Steppenwolf actor who originated the role of Karen Weston in Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County," died in August after a 4½-year battle with ovarian cancer. A 2015 Joseph Jefferson Award winner for her superb performance in "Good People," Mayberry was described by artistic director Anna D. Shapiro as a "true original."

In addition, longtime Steppenwolf artistic director Martha Lavey - an actor, scholar and titan of Chicago theater - died in April from complications from a stroke. The first person outside the founding members to lead the company, Lavey served for 19 years, commissioning new works, expanding the ensemble, overseeing Broadway transfers, initiating a young adults series and establishing the company's partnership with Chicago storefronts.

"She was an impeccable role model," said Shapiro, who succeeded Lavey in 2015. "She never trafficked in any gender dynamics. She didn't suffer fools. And she didn't spend time apologizing or qualifying decisions."

Allegations arise

A year after an investigation into abuse allegations by mostly female theater professionals concluded with the closing of Chicago's Profiles Theatre, the reverberations continued.

In 2017, harassment allegations shuttered Dead Writers Theatre Collective and prompted the resignation of the founder and creative director of Stage 773, according to published reports.

Writers Theatre in Glencoe launched an investigation after harassment complaints surfaced in November against the artistic director who acknowledged "inappropriate and insensitive comments" and agreed to participate in training sessions, according to published reports.

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