Winter Sizzle: 8 Essential Shows and Productions to See This Season

By Hilary Brown | January 14, 2019 | Culture

When the deep freeze hits, Chicago’s stage scene really heats up. From spoken-word sensations to masters of puppetry and ovation-worthy premieres, these are the city’s eight essential must-sees for the season.

Elektra at the Lyric Opera (Photo: Robert Kusel/courtesy Lyric Opera)

Even amid frigid temperatures, the West Loop still reigns as the city’s hottest neighborhood, and legendary musician Steve Earle never fails to raise the temperature with some Texas-style flavor. Now a staple at City Winery each winter, the singer-songwriter turned writer, actor and activist returns with a healthy dose of politics, performance and San Antonio snark. “Steve is a compelling songwriter and storyteller, and he shares his influences onstage in his songs and his stories,” says Libby Brickson, talent buyer at City Winery. Get tickets early for a meet-and-greet ($140 including VIP ticket) and celebrate Earle’s latest album, So You Wannabe an Outlaw, with the outlaw himself. Jan. 14-15 and Feb. 25-26, 1200 W. Randolph St.

Transition from good ol’ fashioned Southwestern storytelling to modern marionettes as the International Puppet Theater Festival makes its triumphant return to unique venues across the city. Every other year, Artistic Director Blair Thomas calls on a menagerie of global artists— from Native American narrators and Scandinavian puppeteers to traditional Japanese bunraku artists—to convey the shared human experience through a world on strings. “Our festival offers a special opportunity for Chicagoans, for fans from across the U.S. and for guests from around the world,” Thomas says. “We invite you to steep yourself in perspectives, experiences and approaches to life that may be different from your own.” Jan. 17- 27

Winter 2019 marks a momentous season for other returns and revisitations as well, among them J.B. Priestley’s classic postwar thriller An Inspector Calls. Directed by Stephen Daldry (heir to the throne of hit Netflix series The Crown), the critically acclaimed crime drama was recently revived and swings through Chicago Shakespeare Theater for a limited-engagement run. “The larger-than-life scale of this thriller will have audiences on the edges of their seats—and you’ll see why they call it the ‘theatrical event of a generation’ in the U.K.,” says Chicago Shakespeare founder and Artistic Director Barbara Gaines. “Simply no one does this work better than Stephen Daldry.” This dinner party gone awry conjures plenty of winter chills worth bundling up for. Feb. 19-March 10, 800 E. Grand Ave.

Shake off your winter boots and brace yourself for the fantastic footwork of the Joffrey Ballet as the company—helmed by choreographer Yuri Possokhov—ambitiously tackles a twist on another suspenseful literary classic, Anna Karenina. The dance visionaries partner with the Australian Ballet (a first-ever collaboration) and a crack team of set and lighting designers for a synesthetic, world-premiere take on Tolstoy’s iconic tale of romance, betrayal and untimely death. Curling up with a good book this winter has never been more enticing. Feb. 13-24, Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Parkway

No matter the season, Lyric Opera of Chicago always has something in store, and composer Richard Strauss’ tour de force Elektra is no exception. The entire cast flexes its muscles in a sure-fire magical performance: a combination of dynamic vocalese, suspenseful plot twists and mindblowing theatrics, all under the direction of guest conductor Donald Runnicles. “Throughout his vast experience in Strauss and Wagner, [Runnicles has] always been able to master stupendously large musical structures, while imparting these pieces with a wonderful sense of drama,” says Musical Director Sir Andrew Davis. Feb. 2-22, 20 N. Wacker Drive

Tucked under the Berwyn Red Line El stop, underground sensation Steep Theatre company offers a cozy black-box experience that’s intimate and socially aware. Break away to the North Side for its Red Rex, an autobiographical account of the emerging troupe’s rise, and stick around for a nightcap at its cozy new Boxcar lounge. Jan. 24-March 2, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave.

Those seeking socially conscious art will find a treasure trove in the workshops and performances of Young Chicago Authors. Presenters of the annual Louder Than a Bomb poetry festival, which hosts more than 1,000 youth wordsmiths, the organization brings plenty of heat through the early winter months as well, from Saturday writing workshops for aspiring poets and rappers and Tuesday night Wordplay open mics. Check out the organization’s calendar for lyrically friendly events on the regular. 1180 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Activism and symphonic music don’t typically go hand in hand, but it’s the bread and butter of Chicago Sinfonietta. The nation’s most diverse orchestra— whose recent programming has included spotlights on women and LGBTQ composers and a Diwali concert—returns to Symphony Center for its cornerstone event, the annual MLK Tribute Concert. A testament to its mission of equitable, accessible classical music, this year’s celebration of the civil rights movement will be championed by three alumni of its Project Inclusion fellowship program. Jan. 21, 220 S. Michigan Ave.

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