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Summer performances collage

From Shakespeare all over Chicago to CSO’s summer residency at Raviana, there’s a plethora of great, often free shows in and around Chicago this summer.

Photos courtesy (starting top left, clockwise) of Paul Chamber Orchestra; Tom McGrath/TCMcG Photography; Matt Sayles/Invision/AP; Ambi Subramaniam; AP Photo/Charles Sykes; Saverio Truglia; Charles Sykes/Invision/AP; Porchlight Music Theatre. Collage by Mendy Kong/WBEZ

The 25 best performances in Chicago this summer

Summer is the most affordable season to see top-notch performances, from theater to dance, with many shows free or reduced cost. Here are the best.

Summertime is when Chicago’s performers leave their home stages and head out to the people, often putting on works for free (or at least much cheaper than usual) in places such as Millennium Park.

From Shakespeare all over to the CSO’s summer residency at Ravinia, there’s a plethora of great, affordable shows happening in and around Chicago this summer. Here are our top 25 in chronological order.

1. Broadway in your Backyard, presented by Porchlight Theatre

June 6 - Aug. 6 at parks around the city

This summer concert series brings music from beloved Broadway musicals to parks on every side of Chicago. You bring the picnic blankets and snacks, and Porchlight Theatre will bring a rotating company of Chicago artists to perform hits from productions including Grease, RENT, Hairspray, Aladdin and more. The series is co-directed by Frankie Leo Bennett, a Porchlight Theatre ensemble member recently nominated for a non-equity Jeff Award for his performance in The SpongeBob Musical, and Michael Weber, Porchlight Theatre’s award-winning artistic director who directed Call Me Elizabeth off-Broadway last summer. Free.

LBRR Laurie Metcalf. Photo by Saverio Truglia.jpg

Little Bear Ridge Road starring Laurie Metcalf will premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre on June 13.

Courtesy of Saverio Truglia

2. Little Bear Ridge Road at Steppenwolf Theatre

Opens June 13 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.

This world premiere is written by MacArthur Fellow Samuel D. Hunter and directed by Tony Award winner Joe Mantello. But the buzz surrounding the production is Steppenwolf ensemble member and Carbondale native Laurie Metcalf, known for her role as Jackie in the hit sitcom Roseanne, who plays the lead role. This story takes place in rural Idaho and follows an estranged aunt and nephew as they reunite to sort through the mess left behind after the death of a family member. Tickets from $46.

3. Joshua Bell brings his new work to Chicago, featuring a piece by CSO composer-in-residence Jessie Montgomery

June 13-15 at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.

Grammy Award-winning violinist Joshua Bell commissioned new works by American composers for The Elements, a suite of five pieces for violin and orchestra. This is the Chicago premiere of the work, which includes Space by outgoing CSO Mead Composer-in-Residence Jessie Montgomery. The project — which also features composers Kevin Puts (Earth), Edgar Meyer (Water), Jake Heggie (Fire) and Jennifer Higdon (Air) — was born in the early days of the pandemic. Bell has said the collaboration celebrates the “beauty of our natural world.” Tickets from $35.

4. Joffrey Ballet outdoors for free

5:30 p.m. on June 16 at Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph St.

The free-to-attend performance is set to feature pieces from contemporary choreographers such as Justin Peck (whose recent claim to fame is the dance-forward musical Illinoise that’s been generating buzz since it opened earlier this year at Chicago Shakespeare Theater), Manoela Gonçalves, Yuri Possokhov, Cathy Marston and Christopher Wheeldon. There will be performances from the Joffrey’s three distinct programs: the company dancers, the members of the Joffrey’s training program and dancers in the in-school program for Chicago youth. Bring a picnic plus some friends to Millennium Park’s Great Lawn for this night of dance outdoors. Free.

Third Coast Percussion

Third Coast Percussion, seen here performing at the 59th annual Grammy Awards, will perform a night of experimental music at Constellation in June.

Matt Sayles/Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

5. A night of new, experimental music presented by Third Coast Percussion

8:30 p.m. on June 21 at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave.

This annual concert features new works by early career composers and a chance to see the most innovative and experimental work of the season, according to Third Coast Percussion, which curates the lineup. This year’s show will feature works by Joel St. Julien, Srayamurtikanti and Nick Zoulek. St. Julien is a Haitian American composer based in San Francisco who has written music for documentaries. Srayamurtikanti works with Balinese traditional music and Zoulek is a Chicago-based saxophonist and composer. The concert is all ages. Tickets from $15.

6. See Italian masterpieces at the Opera Festival of Chicago

June 21-July 14 at venues across the Chicago area

Back for the fourth year, this opera festival is a chance to see works that aren’t often staged in the U.S. — and for much less than the typical opera ticket. This year, the festival will kick off with a mashup of arias and scenes from all of Puccini’s operas — with a special appearance from superstar tenor Jonathan Tetelman. Appearing in Chicago for the first time, the Chilean performer is among the fastest rising opera stars of his generation. That performance will take place at 7:30 p.m. on June 21 at DePaul University’s Jarvis Opera Hall. The festival also includes a performance of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut June 27-30 at Cahn Auditorium in Evanston and a double-bill performance of Dallapiccola’s Il Prigioniero and The Medium July 11 and 14 at Athenaeum Theater. Tickets from $25.

Roy Wood Jr.

Roy Wood Jr., known for his work as a correspondent on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, will perform at the Athenaeum on June 22.

Charles Sykes/Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

7. Comedian Roy Wood Jr. at the Athenaeum

7 p.m. on June 22 at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave.

Most known for his eight-year run as a correspondent on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Emmy-nominated comedian Roy Wood Jr. appears for a night of stand-up here. His appearance follows an eventful 2023 — when he left the Daily Show, hosted the White House Correspondents Dinner and kicked off a national tour refocusing his comedy from politics to fatherhood. Tickets from $46.

8. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil at the Goodman Theatre

Opens June 25 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.

Adopted from John Berendt’s iconic Southern novel, this production whisks audiences into the southern charm of Savannah, Ga. With a book written by MacArthur “Genius” grantee Taylor Mac and music and lyrics by Tony Award winner Jason Robert Brown, this world premiere musical — directed by Tony Award winner Rob Ashford — breathes new life to the blockbuster true-crime book. Eccentric characters, hidden truths and revelations fuel a production that is shaping up to be a must-see this summer. Tickets from $25.

9. Ain’t Misbehavin at Drury Lane

Opens June 26 at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace

Welcome to the Harlem Renaissance. This Fats Waller musical will have audiences dancing in their seats to jazz classics such as Honeysuckle Rose and I Can’t Give You Anything But Love. In a time when late-night joints were jumpin’ and Harlem was filled to the brim with artists, these were the tunes of the movement. This revue will put audiences in the middle of the action, toe-tapping and finger-snapping along with the performers. Tickets from $65.

Ambi Subramaniam.jpg

Ambi Subramaniam will perform at the Mandala Makers Festival in June.

Photo courtesy of the artist

10. Violin great Ambi Subramaniam at Harris Theater

7 p.m. on June 27 at Harris Theater, 205 E Randolph St.

Subramaniam — a master of Indian classical violin — will cap off Mandala South Asian Performing Arts’s Makers Festival, which highlights performing arts traditions from South Asia. The award-winning violinist will perform at the Harris Theater with Chicago’s Mandala Music Circle, bringing together a variety of sounds that highlight the diversity of Indian music. The Makers Festival will also feature performances throughout the month of June in the Devon Avenue area. Tickets from $25.

Pulitzer Prize - Drama

The Hot Wing King, which playwright Katori Hall won a Pulitzer Prize for, will appear at Writers Theatre starting June 28.

Charles Sykes/AP

11. The Hot Wing King at Writers Theatre

Opens June 28 at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe

Winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, this comedy centers a crew of chefs competing for the grand prize in the Memphis Annual hot wing festival. Starring Breon Arzell, who recently won a non-equity Jeff Award for choreography in Kokandy Productions’s American Psycho, and THEE Ricky Harris, who recently dazzled audiences in The Time Machine at Black Ensemble Theatre, this show is about risk, reward and learning to celebrate your true self. Tickets from $35.

12. Romeo and Juliet at parks citywide, presented by Midsommer Flight

June 28 - Aug. 4 at 6 Chicago Parks, 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays

Love is in the air with free outdoor performances of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet happening all summer. Presented by Midsommer Flight, a local theater company dedicated to producing accessible Shakespeare productions, this whole summer run is free to the public. Shows will be at Chicago Women’s Park, Grant Park, Lincoln Park, Kelvyn Park, Nichols Park and Touhy Park, so there are plenty of opportunities and locations to take advantage of free summer theater. Click the link above for dates at each park, and be sure to bring your blankets, chairs and snacks. Free.

Gustavo Ramírez Sansano 1 by KT Miller.jpg

Choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano is behind Carmen.maquia, which combines contemporary dance with Spanish pasodoble and flamenco.

Courtesy of KT Miller

13. A Picasso-inspired performance by Visceral Dance at MCA

June 28-30 at the Museum Of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave.

Visceral Dance will perform Carmen.maquia for the first time. The work by Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano — the former artistic director of Luna Negra Dance Theater — premiered in Chicago in 2012, featuring music from the Georges Bizet opera Carmen. Sansano’s work is billed as a “Picasso-inspired, contemporary take on Bizet’s beloved classic.” It combines contemporary dance with Spanish pasodoble and flamenco. Visceral, which is working with Sansano for the first season, will perform the work at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Tickets from $25.

14. The Last Wide Open at American Blues Theater

Opens July 5 at American Blues Theater, 5627 N. Lincoln Ave.

In this beautiful love story set to music, characters’ lives intersect through three parallel realities. The production stars an actual married couple, Dara Cameron and Michael Mahler, who portray Lina and Robercik, a worn-out waitress and an immigrant dishwasher. The production experiments with the near hits-and-misses that guide the direction of our lives and explores the ways the universe conspires to bring people together. This world premiere will also feature a staging in Polish. Ticket price not set at presstime.

Claire Aebersold and Ralph Neiweem 3 by Organic Headshots.jpg

Claire Aebersold and Ralph Neiweem co-founded the annual Chicago Duo Piano Festival.

Photo by Organic Headshots

15. The Chicago Duo Piano Festival

7 p.m. on July 7 at Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston

The annual Chicago Duo Piano Festival kicks off with a concert featuring festival co-founders Claire Aebersold and Ralph Neiweem. The married couple, among the most acclaimed piano duos, has been performing side by side at the piano since the early 1980s, focusing on works written for four hands. The July concert will feature Franz Liszt’s Don Juan Fantasy, along with works by the likes of Mozart and Schubert. Throughout the weeklong festival, there will also be public concerts on July 9, 12 and 13. Tickets are $30 ($15 for seniors and students).

ALSOP-071522 10.jpg

Marian Alsop will return to lead the CSO in its 88th summer season at Ravinia.

Brian Rich/Chicago Sun-Times

16. CSO opens Ravinia season with a night of American music

7:30 p.m. on July 12 at at Ravinia, 418 Sheridan Road, Highland Park

Ravinia chief conductor Marin Alsop returns to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in its 88th summer season at the North Shore venue. The series kicks off with a night of exclusively American music, featuring soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha and pianist Michelle Cann. The program includes George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. In total, the CSO will perform 16 times between July 12 and Aug. 18 at Ravinia and will be joined by several guest conductors and soloists. Their programming includes an evening of Paul Simon’s music on July 19 and screenings of movies such as The Princess Bride and Up, during which the symphony will play the scores live. Tickets from $17.

17. Alice By Heart, presented by Kokandy Productions

Opens July 19 at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St.

With a book by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik, the award-winning creators of Spring Awakening, this Chicago premiere is inspired by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This version takes place in World War II-era London, with teenage Alice finding her world turned upside down when she is forced to take shelter underground. When her friend is quarantined, she aids his escape and they travel down the rabbit hole into the world of a favorite book. This musical unveils the journey of true love, courage and coping with loss through the lens of imagination. Tickets from $35.

CST_TheLordoftheRings_PrePro-UKCAST_byPamelaRaithPhotography.jpg

The Lord of the Rings: a Musical Tale will open at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on July 19.

Photo courtesy of Pamela Raith Photography

18. The Lord of the Rings: a Musical Tale

Opens July 19 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave.

This musical made its debut in the United Kingdom last year and is having its U.S. premiere here in Chicago before an international tour. With book and lyrics by Shaun McKenna and Matthew Warchus, the production is based on the well-known novels by J.R.R. Tolkien — but with a new, theatrical vibe. This story, told from the perspective of the Hobbits, starts with Bilbo Baggins gifting his nephew, Frodo, a ring and launching a journey through Middle Earth. The characters and plot will be familiar, but the story will be paired with original music and that unique flair that only happens in live theater. Tickets from $47.

19. Obliteration, presented by Gift Theatre

Opens July 25 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.

This show about two comedians trying to make sense of the world features some heavy hitters. It stars Michael Patrick Thornton, the co-founder and former artistic director of Gift Theatre, who recently performed on Broadway in the Tony-nominated production A Doll’s House. Also taking the stage is seasoned Chicago actor Cyd Blakewell, who was recently seen on stage in About Face Theatre’s Brightest Thing in the World. The production is written and directed by Andrew Hinderaker, who is currently the executive producer and showrunner of Black Rabbit, an upcoming Netflix series starring Jason Bateman. Tickets from $30.

20. Tim Meadows and Matt Walsh at iO Fest 2024

July 25-28 at iO Theater, 1501 N. Kingsbury St.

Meadows, Walsh & Friends — the improv team of Tim Meadows (The Ladies Man, Mean Girls and a bunch of Adam Sandler flicks), Chicago’s Matt Walsh (Veep, Into the Storm) and a few of their funny friends — will headline the long-awaited return of iO Fest after a multiyear hiatus. This four-day improv festival is packed with big laughs and big names. With more than 70 acts, this is Chicago’s largest improv fest, and the event will also feature specialty workshops and top comedic talent from around the country. Tickets from $45.

21. Dance for Life: A night of performances for a cause

6 p.m. on Aug. 10 at Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Drive

Chicago’s top dance companies — including Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater, Giordano Dance Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Joffrey Ballet and Visceral Dance Chicago — share the stage for the 33rd annual Dance for Life. The night benefits the Chicago Dance Health Fund, which provides financial support for health care to dance professionals in the city who often work on contracts. Companies making their Dance for Life debuts include Ballet 5:8, Praize Productions and Winifred Haun & Dancers. Hubbard Street’s Jonathan E. Alsberry will choreograph the always high-energy finale, featuring dancers from across Chicago. Tickets from $45.

22. Broadway in Chicago’s night in the park

6:15 p.m. on Aug. 12 at Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph St.

This is one of the big Millennium Park nights of the summer, when it feels like everyone in the city is there. Broadway Chicago’s free night outside will feature music from Back to the Future: The Musical, which will open the next day at the Cadillac Palace Theatre and be in town through Sept. 1. The show stars newcomer Caden Brauch as Marty McFly. The night in the park will also include music from A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical, & Juliet and Some Like It Hot. Plus pieces from fan favorites like Les Miserables and Beauty and the Beast. Free.

Deeply Rooted Dance Theater

Deeply Rooted Dance Theater will perform at Millennium Park on August 24.

Photo by Michelle Reid

23. Chicago’s Black dance tradition takes centerstage in a free performance

5:45 p.m. on Aug. 24 at Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph St.

Chicago’s rich history of Black dance will be highlighted in Divination: The Dancing Souls of Black Folk, presented by the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project and featuring 10 dance companies. Among the companies performing is Homer Hans Bryant’s Chicago Multicultural Dance Company and Hiplet Ballerinas. The dancer and choreographer has trained everyone from Lady Gaga to the Obama daughters over the years. Additional performers at the Millennium Park concert include Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, The Era Footwork Collective, Forward Momentum Chicago, Joel Hall Dancers & Center, M.A.D.D. Rhythms, Move Me Soul, Muntu Dance Theatre, NAJWA Dance Corps and Praize Productions Inc. Free.

24. Opera in Millennium Park

7 p.m. on Aug. 25 at Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph St.

Lyric Opera’s Music Director Enrique Mazzola will conduct a variety of favorite pieces from the upcoming 2024-25 season performed by artists from the Ryan Opera Center at this free Sunday in the Park performance. It’s a chance to experience the high art form in a laid-back setting and to get a taste of what’s in store next season for opera fans in Chicago. Mazzola became the Lyric’s third music director in 2021. He’s known for his expertise in French operas, especially early works by Verdi. Free.

Clarice Assad

Clarice Assad, pictured here conducting The Evolution of AI, will perform the original program Archetypes alongside her father Sérgio Assad on August 27.

Courtesy of Paul Chamber Orchestra

25. Renowned father-daughter duo Sérgio Assad and Clarice Assad kick off Third Coast Percussion’s 20th anniversary season

7:30 p.m. on Aug. 27 at Ravinia, 418 Sheridan Road, Highland Park

Sérgio Assad and Clarice Assad will perform their original program Archetypes, which blends guitars, piano, voice and percussion. The Brazilian father-daughter duo’s work features 12 pieces about universally known archetypes from legends and folktales such as the rebel, the lover, the orphan and the hero. Their album by the same name, released by Cedille Records, was nominated for three Grammy Awards. The evening kicks off Third Coast Percussion’s 20th anniversary season, which will feature events throughout the next year. Tickets from $15.


Mike Davis is WBEZ’s theater reporter.
Courtney Kueppers is an arts and culture reporter at WBEZ.

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