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‘The Iceman Cometh’ topped a year of exceptional Chicago theater

Brian Dennehy left portraying one-time syndicalist-anarchist Larry Slade Nathan Lane as Theodore 'Hickey' Hickman perform Eugene O'Neill's 'The Iceman Cometh.'

Brian Dennehy, left, portraying one-time syndicalist-anarchist Larry Slade, and Nathan Lane as Theodore "Hickey" Hickman perform in Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh." (AP Photo/Courtesy of The Goodman Theatre, Liz Lauren)

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Updated: January 31, 2013 6:05AM

Any year that can bring both a riveting revival of “The Iceman Cometh” and a rip-roaring tour of “The Book of Mormon” to the stage is enough to win extended applause.

By every measure, 2012 was an exceptionally good year for Chicago theater. In fact, there were countless times during the past 12 months when I left a show feeling either so gobsmacked by its impact that I didn’t want to speak to anyone until the magic had subsided, or so bedazzled I could only say: “Amazing; only in this city.”

And “only in this city” is the essential phrase. The grassroots beauty of Chicago’s theater scene persists, and with it a pool of talent that ranges from an inspiring octogenarian like Mike Nussbaum to Chicago-bred “names” like Mary Zimmerman and Tracy Letts, mid-career standard-bearers of every stripe to an ever-emerging lineup of newcomers that includes recent college grads and even grade-school stars.

If there is a stubborn downside here it is only that for all the chatter about the city’s “Cultural Plan” — that high-priced exercise in collating what everyone already knew — the city still doesn’t have a clue about how to promote “indigenous” Chicago theater to national and international tourists, and remains largely fixated on selling whatever Broadway sends our way.

But that is a discussion for another time. Here, as the year draws to a close, is a painfully abbreviated list of the best work to arrive on this city’s stages during 2012.

Best of the year

“The Iceman Cometh” at the Goodman Theatre: This was the theatrical breakfast of champions — a test of sheer stamina for both its actors (a sublime ensemble of 18 under the direction of Robert Falls) and its audiences (who, in vast numbers, gave themselves over to Eugene O’Neill’s nearly five- hour-long, alcohol-fueled fever dream of a play about men in a Bowery flophouse desperately clinging to some vestige of life and hope). With Nathan Lane as the self-styled salesman/preacher who finally sheds all lies, Brian Dennehy as the great old eagle hovering over all the inaction, and a slew of bravura actors piercing the grand hangover haze, this production (with Kevin Depinet’s ghostly, deep-perspective sets) had a wonderfully delusional scale all its own. It should have gone on to New York, but the fact that it existed at all was a miracle.

And the rest

“The Book of Mormon” at the Bank of America Theatre: Sometimes the hype turns out to be the truth. The Chicago edition of this massive Broadway hit is even better than the original, revealing the show’s heart as well as the satirical mischief stirred up by creators Trey Park, Matt Stone, Robert Lopez and Casey Nicholaw. Without pressing the case too strongly, it can be said that this airtight musical even pays homage to the cross-cultural classics of Rodgers and Hammerstein. And keep your eye on Ben Platt, the 19-year-old wunderkind who plays Elder Arnold Cunningham. A star has been born.

“A History of Everything” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater: The title suggests all you need to know about this marvel of a 90-minute theater piece that played to far too few people over far too short a period as part of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s invaluable World’s Stage series. Written by Alexander Devriendt (also the brilliant director) and Joeri Smet, this co-creation of the Belgian-based Ontroerend Goed troupe and Australia’s Sydney Theatre Company featured seven exquisitely poetic actors spinning the history of creation through evolutionary changes, wars, monarchies and all the rest. Staggeringly smart, and pure magic.

“Good People” at Steppenwolf Theatre: David Lindsay-Abaire’s shrewdly drawn powerhouse of a play was a cry from the heart about the life of America’s working poor, and the inability of those in the higher ranks of society to understand the quiet desperation of their existence. The Steppenwolf production, expertly directed by K. Todd Freeman, marked the full blossoming of actress Mariann Mayberry in a role she seemed born to play — a South Boston single mother with a great deal of baggage. Mayberry’s fellow actors were with her every step of the way in this ever-surprising drama.

“Eastland” at Lookingglass Theatre: Based on the true story of the 1915 passenger boat disaster on the Chicago River, this new musical — with a gorgeously limned scenario by Andrew White, music by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman, and direction by Amanda Dehnert — also told a tale about the working class. Magically enacted, beautifully sung and stunningly designed (by that all-around genius Dan Ostling), the show deserves a much higher profile, but will probably be neglected — written off as a regional version of the Titanic story. What a narrow-minded shame. (And yes, I’ll cheat here: Lookingglass had a second breathtaking production this year — a remount of Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses” that revealed it to be more glorious than ever. This work of breathtaking invention, with a pool of water as the medium of transformation, possesses a singular ability to “morph” so that it seems to reflect the exact time and place in which it is being produced. Hypnotic.)

“Annie” at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora: Everything director-choreographer Rachel Rockwell touches has a tendency to turn to gold, and it shouldn’t be long before she is a force on Broadway. But who would have believed she could put such a fabulously fresh and meaningful twist on this comic book musical — infusing it with a genuine historical subtext while never losing sight of all its goofy charm, humor and heart? Cheers to Caroline Heffernan, the thinking girl’s orphan, to Christine Sherrill, the sexiest-ever Miss Hannigan, and to the rest of the large, impeccably chosen cast at this historic west suburban venue that has become a major musical theater contender.

“My One and Only,” at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire: Tammy Mader, like fellow director-choreographer Rockwell, offers further evidence that choreographers invariably grow into the most gifted directors of musical theater. Her revival of this tap-dance-driven show, set to the music of the Gershwin brothers, was sheer bliss — light, airy, whimsical and deliciously waterborne. But the Marriott has been on a roll recently, with the world premiere of the beguiling “Hero” by Michael Mahler and Aaron Thielen, as well as a sassy, very “vintage/modern” take on “The Pirates of Penzance.”

“Punk Rock,” a Griffin Theatre production: Director Jonathan Berry’s gripping production of this drama by British writer Simon Stephens was on this list long before the recent school shootings in Newtown, Conn. But that catastrophe has only intensified its impact. It was set in an English high school, where class differences, sexual tension and nasty bullying reach the boiling point — and where violence is the shocking but inevitable outcome for one disturbed adolescent boy. Its most memorable scene was its final one, in which a profoundly angry and troubled boy is (finally) seen talking to a psychiatrist.

“33 Variations,” a TimeLine Theatre production: Nick Bowling’s direction of Moises Kaufman’s fiendishly difficult play revealed TimeLine at its cerebral yet always passionate best. A tale that combined notions of debilitating illness, the troubled relationship between a mother and daughter, a budding romance, an unexpected friendship, and Beethoven’s obsessive, late-career exploration of a simple musical theme, it was stunningly acted (most notably by Janet Ulrich Brooks, in just one of her many exceptional performances in recent seasons) and ingeniously designed.

“Oedipus El Rey,” at Victory Gardens Theatre: The theater’s recent change of leadership has been rocky, but this production of Luis Alfaro’s re-imagining of the Oedipus myth against a contemporary, gang-infested barrio of Los Angeles was a knockout. Raw, mysterious and physically stunning, Alfaro’s play was in many ways the most convincing rendering of the Oedipus story I’ve seen to date, and, not incidentally, one of the most erotic — with the sensational Adam Poss and Charin Alvarez as mother and son.

The honorable mentions

“The Light in the Piazza” and “Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller” (Theo Ubique Cabaret productions); “Blizzard of ’67” (Chicago Dramatists); “A Little Night Music” and “The Letters” (both at Writers’ Theatre); “One Name Only” (Black Ensemble Theatre); “Floyd Collins” (a BoHo Theatre production); “tick, tick....BOOM!” and “A Class Act” (Porchlight Music Theatre productions); “After” (Profiles Theatre); “Jitney” (Court Theatre); “Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter” (Next Theatre); “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart” (National Theatre of Scotland at Chicago Shakespeare); “Superior Donuts” (Mary-Arrchie at Royal George Cabaret); “Seascape” (Remy Bumppo Theatre); “Idomeneus” (Sideshow Theatre Company at Storefront Theatre); “The Opponent” (A Red Orchid Theatre), and “Doubt”(American Theatre Company).

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