The history of theater in Chicago is as old as the city itself.
The first theatrical performances were held in the dining room of Chicago’s first hotel, the Sauganash, in 1837, the same year Chicago incorporated.
When Alexander McKenzie, co-founder of Chicago’s first theater group, The Chicago Theater, visited Chicago that year, he wondered if residents were sophisticated enough for such cosmopolitan entertainment.
McKenzie noted: “I returned to the hotel, disappointed in what I saw of the town, and made up my mind that this was no place for a show,” Margaret Hicks notes in her book, Chicago Comedy: A Fairly Serious History.
Well the show did go on, and so began the city’s legacy as a world-class theater town.
From its earliest days Chicago has grown its theater scene in fits and spurts, playing home to the “little theater” movement at the turn of the century, driving the popularity of independent storefront theaters and giving birth to the improv comedy movement.
On the heels of Chicago Theatre Week (Feb. 8-18), the city continues to up the ante with a wide-ranging selection of exciting premieres. But with more than 200 venues throughout the Chicago area, both visitors and locals might find themselves asking where to start.
We’ve chronicled some of the hottest premieres this year, and listed a few among our many favorite venues, along with their most highly anticipated performances.
@Love Never Dies
From the thrilling to the hilarious, Chicago’s theater scene has scores of breathtaking premieres headed to the stage this year. Cadillac Palace Theatre helped kick off February with the premiere of Love Never Dies, the highly anticipated sequel to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s masterpiece The Phantom of the Opera. The story continues 10 years later, following the Phantom’s new life in New York.
Lookingglass Theatre launches its world premiere of Plantation! in February. Written by Lookingglass ensemble member Kevin Douglas and directed by David Schwimmer (of Friends fame), this comedy tells the story of a Texas matriarch who “discovers that the history of the ancestral home is, well…complicated.” Chaos ensues when she reveals an awful truth to her Southern Belle daughters.
A Red Orchid Theatre premiered Traitor in January, with ensemble member two-time Academy Award-nominated actor Michael Shannon, and the run was extended to March 4, so there’s still time to catch it. Based on Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, Traitor tells the story of a newly opened charter school in a Chicago northside suburb, where problems are discovered with the school grounds and “suspicion and rancor mount as truths bubble to the surface.”
While A Red Orchid has its take on Ibsen’s classic, so does Goodman Theatre, with its own production of An Enemy of the People in March. In this telling of Ibsen’s story, a town faces water contamination, while “two brothers face off in a battle of political ambitions and moral integrity.”
Pretty Woman the Musical makes its pre-Broadway world premiere in March at James M. Nederlander Theatre. We’re also excited by Nederlander’s premiere of The Cher Show in June. From her childhood days dreaming of stardom to an icon selling 100-million records, this musical tells the story of Cher’s meteoric rise to fame.
If that’s not enough of the rock star treatment for you, check out On Your Feet!, about Emilio and Gloria Estefan, which begins its run at Cadillac Palace Theatre in March.
Also in March, Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place begins production of A Taste of Things to Come, “a fabulously fun romp tracing the changing lives of four Winnetka, Illinois women from the 1950s to the sexual revolution of the 1960s.”
In April, Greenhouse Theater Center premieres the whimsical Birds of a Feather, a story about two gay penguins about to become first-time parents. This story, apparently taken from real events, is based on Marc Acito’s book “that became one of the most banned in the U.S.”
Here’s more of what’s in store on Chicago’s theater scene.
Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University ©Broadway in Chicago
50 E. Congress Pkwy
Joffrey Ballet - Midsummer Night’s Dream, April 5-May 6 - A new take on Shakespeare’s celebration of the longest day of the year.
The Color Purple, July 17 to 29 - This reboot of the Pulitzer Prize-winning story won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical.
175 E. Chestnut St
Potted Potter, Now showing - All seven Harry Potter books condensed into one hilarious play.
A Taste of Things to Come, March 20-April 29 - Four Winnetka women’s lives change at the onset of the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
Heartbreak Hotel, June 30-Sept. 9 - This prequel to the Tony Award-winning Million Dollar Quartet tells the story of a young Elvis Presley.
151 W. Randolph St
Love Never Dies, Feb. 14-March 4 - This premiere is a riveting sequel to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera.
On Your Feet!, March 21-April 8 - This musical explores the famed recording artist couple Emilio and Gloria Estefan.
The Sound of Music, April 10-15 - This is a new production of a time-honored classic.
Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella, April 27-May 6 - A new take on the beloved fairytale.
Dirty Dancing, May 29-June 3 - Nobody puts baby in a corner. This smash reboot features hit songs from the movie.
Waitress, July 3-27 - Jenna is a waitress and expert pie maker who dreams of leaving her small town and dead-end marriage.
Tootsie, Sept. 11-Oct. 14 - The world premiere of the story of a struggling actor who gets the role of his life, and more than he bargained for.
18 W. Monroe St
Hamilton, Now showing through Sept. 2 - The smash hit about the life and untimely the death of Alexander Hamilton.
The Station, 100 S. Racine Ave
Red Kite Treasure Adventure, Now playing through March 4 - An interactive theatrical experience tailored to those on the autism spectrum.
An Epic Tale of Scale, March 10-April 8 - Described as “an encounter that defies description,” incorporating music, science experiments, games, arts, craft projects and more.
Last Stop on the Market Street, April 24-June 3 - Premiere of the stage adaptation of the celebrated contemporary children’s book.
The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater © James Steinkamp Photography
800 E. Grand Ave
Short Shakespeare! A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Feb. 3-March 10 - A 75-minute abridged version of Shakespeare’s ode to spring.
Mary Stuart, Feb. 21-April 15 - Mary, Queen of Scots, has been accused of treason. Her cousin, Elizabeth I, Queen of England, must decide her fate.
Macbeth, April 25-June 24 - From the creators of CST’s sold-out version of The Tempest.
Waiting for Godot, May 23-June 3 - Druid Theatre brings a new interpretation of Beckett’s seminal work.
Hanged Man at The Gift Theater, photo by Claire Demos
4802 N. Milwaukee Ave
Hang Man, March 8-April 29 - A southern town struggles with its identity following the hanging of a black man.
Hamlet, June 7-July 29 - Shakespeare’s classic tale of revenge and Denmark's most famous son.
Cosmologies, Oct. 18-Dec. 9 - An existential absurdist comedy about a man’s negotiation for a date gone very wrong.
170 N. Dearborn St
The Wolves, Now playing through March 11 - This 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist tells the story of a girls soccer team.
An Enemy of the People, March 10-April 15 - Henrik Ibsen’s story about a town facing a water contamination emergency, as well as a moral crisis.
Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, May 5-June 10 - A family drama about two sisters who recall the challenges of their lives as they prepare a meal in honor of their late father.
Father Comes Home From the Wars, May 25-June 24 - Civil War epic by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Suzan-Lori Parks.
Support Group for Men, June 23-July 29 - Set against the backdrop of a “Guys’ Night” group, this comedy explores contemporary gender roles.
Rose at the Greenhouse Theater Center, photo by Johnny Knight
257 N. Lincoln Ave
Rose, Now playing through March 11 - A portrait of Kennedy family matriarch Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy.
100 Acts of Resistance, Now playing through May 26 - Chicago’s artist community explores acts of resistance.
Birds of a Feather, April 27-June 17 - The story of gay American dads, who also happen to be penguins!
Hang, March 21-April 29 - A woman is ushered into a government office and told to make a devastating decision.
Why Do You Always Wear Black?, March 21-April 8 - An original play based on the women of Anton Chekhov’s plays.
The Revolutionists, May 29-July 8 - The story of four women who lived during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror.
Tiresias Was a Weatherman, May 31-July 6 - In a parallel universe the destruction of mental illness is reflected in meteorological events.
821 N. Michigan Ave
Plantation!, Feb. 21-April 22 - World premiere about a Texas matriarch who learns more than she wanted to know about ancestral history.
20,000 Leagues Under the Seas, May 23-Aug. 19 - A professor and his crew are captured by Captain Nemo in this fantastical voyage.
24 W. Randolph St
Pretty Woman the Musical, March 13-April 15 - The world premiere of the classic romantic comedy
The Cher Show, June 12-July 15 - This premiere tells the story of beloved pop icon Cher.
1531 N. Wells St
Traitor, Jan. 14-March 4 - An adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, but based on the issues surrounding a newly opened charter school in a northside Chicago suburb.
2936 N. Southport
The Luckiest People, March 26-April 29 - Richard is forced to care for his difficult father as he prepares to be a first-time father with his partner David.
1650 N. Halsted St
You Got Older, Now playing through March 11 - A dark coming of age comedy.
The Doppelganger (An International Farce), April 5-May 27 - A man assumes his recently deceased doppelganger’s identity.
Guards at the Taj, May 31-July 22 - Story of two imperial guards at the newly constructed Taj Mahal.
The Roommate, June 21-Aug. 5 - Steppenwolf describes this comedy as The Odd Couple meets Breaking Bad.
615 W. Wellington Ave
Boy, Now playing through March 18 - A story of gender exploration, where parents raise one of their twin sons as a girl.
To Catch a Fish, May 3-July 1 - Inspired by true events, this premiere tells the story of Terry Kilbourn, whose new boss begins to ask more of him.
2433 N. Lincoln Ave|
Moon Man Walk, Now playing through Feb. 25 - A story that explores the relationship between a man and his recently deceased mother.
You for Me for You, March 4-April 8 - Two North Korean sisters plan their escape, but are separated at the border.
Lettie, April 6-May 6 - Lettie struggles to make a new start after spending six years in prison.