Chicago's champion of Shakespeare, two master pianists, and a musical theater classic

Art of all kinds to enjoy this summer

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Yehezkel Lazarov, Jonathan Von Mering, and the Cast of Fiddler on the Roof. (Credit: Joan Marcus)

News of the woman who created a Chicago theater institution devoted to Shakespeare. Two world-renowned pianists performing solo concerts at Orchestra Hall. And a Broadway classic with universal appeal that captures the anguish and joy of Jewish life. Here's a toast to the celebration of May's cultural flowers:

Barbara Gaines' legacy: The building of a major Chicago cultural institution

William Shakespeare was the force behind London's original Globe Theatre, which was built in 1599. But it is Barbara Gaines who brought the Bard front and center to Chicago as the founder of the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, the formidable company she began in 1986 with a much-heralded production of Henry V staged on the roof of the Red Lion pub in the Lakeview neighborhood.

In the years since then, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre has grown into a grand, internationally recognized, multi-stage operation on Navy Pier that creates fresh interpretations of Shakespeare's 37 plays, but also ventures well beyond the Bard's work to showcase new plays and musicals, as well as a slew of works by visiting artists from abroad.

Gaines grew up in Port Chester, N.Y.--"a factory town known as the place where Life Savers were once manufactured." Her father was a film editor who directed commercials, her mother was a housewife, and like many Jewish families, they went to see Broadway shows.

Gaines would eventually head to Northwestern University where she took what she describes as "a life-altering Shakespeare class with the renowned professor Wallace Bacon," and that convinced her to begin auditioning and try her hand at acting. After badly injuring a knee while working in summer stock, she earned a living doing voiceovers for industrial films and began teaching a Shakespeare class for professional actors that became very successful.

Then came the production at Red Lion on a budget of $3,000. A Vice President at Chase Bank who happened to see it eventually donated $25,000 that would be the seed money for Chicago's move to its first home, the Ruth Page Dance Center. There, the company performed for 13 years; as Gaines laughingly noted, "We opened with one of the least known of Shakespeare's plays, Troilus and Cressida , and it got a great response."

Then, as Navy Pier was being re-imagined in the 1990s, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, which had already garnered an impressive audience, made the momentous move to its new home on the Pier. The rest is theater history.

There is a search and transition committee in place for who will replace Gaines--who has directed 56 plays--as artistic director. And her plans? "Just to stop for a while and have no responsibilities for a few months, and then to work on a new musical about four sisters--oppressed women from a long time ago who also happen to be witches.

Note: Currently running at CST is All's Well That Ends Well (through May 29), to be followed by two new musicals-- It Came From Outer Space (June 22-July 24) and The Notebook (Sept. 6-Oct. 16). For tickets visit or call (312) 595-5600.

Two piano masters headed to Orchestra Hall

It has been quite a season for bravura pianists at Orchestra Hall so far this year--from Jan Lisiecki, Mitsuko Uchida, Martin Helmchen, Richard Goode, and Emanuel Ax to Inon Barnatan, Igor Levit, Lukáš Vondráček, George Li, and Daniil Trifonov. And this month, two additional keyboard masters--Yefim Bronfman and Evgeny Kissin--will be added to that list, with each giving a solo concert. Both also just happen to have deep Jewish roots.

Bronfman, born in 1958 in Uzbekistan (then part of the former Soviet Union), emigrated to Israel at the age of 15, became an American citizen in 1989, and was memorably described by Philip Roth in his novel, The Human Stain as "Bronfman the brontosaur! Mr. Fortissimo." At his concert on May 8, he will play a suite and a sonata by Bela Bartok, as well as sonatas by Beethoven and Chopin.

Kissen, who was born in Moscow in 1971 (and became a British citizen in 2002, and an Israeli citizen in 2013), was a child prodigy who is known to have "shot to fame playing Chopin at the age of 12." The program for his Chicago concert on May 15 will include selected Mazurkas and the "Andante spianato and Grande polonaise brilliante, Op. 22" by Chopin, as well as the Bach/Tausig "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" and Mozart's "Adagio in B Minor."

For tickets visit or call (312) 294-3000.

The return of 'Fiddler'

Fiddler on the Roof hardly needs an introduction. Inspired by stories written (in Yiddish) by Sholem Aleichem between 1894 and 1914, the musical--by Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), Joseph Stein (book), and direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins--opened on Broadway in 1964 and has been produced throughout the world ever since.

The current national touring production, directed by Bartlett Sher and choreographed by the Israeli-born Hofesh Shechter, arrives at a particularly timely moment. Sholem Aleichem grew up in a shtetl not far from Kyiv--part of the Pale of Settlement that included what is today Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, Moldova, and Lithuania. Much that is old is new again, most notably the pain of immigration and the dispersal of families.

Fiddler on the Roof runs May 17-24 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph. For tickets visit or call 312-977-1710.

Note: My one wish for future seasons is that the acclaimed Yiddish production of Fiddler --a hit when it was produced in New York in 2018 by the National Yiddish Folksbiene Theater and directed by Joel Grey--will be remounted and make a visit to Chicago at some point.

Hedy Weiss, a longtime Chicago arts critic, was the Theater and Dance Critic for the   Chicago Sun-Times   from 1984 to 2018, and currently writes for   WTTW-TV's  website and contributes to the   Chicago Tonight   program.

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