Heartstrings Awards: Celebrating the Most Moving in Chicago Theatre 2022

It is an honor and a privilege to review the best and brightest in Chicago theatre. I get to see wonderfully creative people share their talents and then I get to spread the word to encourage others to see the best of those performances.

There are a number of respected theatrical awards programs throughout the Chicagoland area. These programs celebrate the very best in artistic talents in wonderful ways, but what I found to be missing was an awards program that not only considered a person’s talent but also the emotions they stir in the audience. Thus was born the Heartstrings Awards – shining a light on the performances and contributions made in the theatrical community this year that touched the heart the most.

The criterion for each award is entirely subjective, as that I am the judge and jury. I am a firm believer that every person who shares their talents with the world should be applauded. I wish I had the resources to acknowledge every fantastic member of the theater world that touched my heart in 2022, but this list of the cream of the crop is a good start.

I ask that you not dwell on who didn’t win. Rather, I encourage you to join me in celebrating the spirit in which the awards are given. The Heartstrings Awards are all about putting positive energy into the world and supporting the performing arts and the beauty they bring to our lives.

Thank you to all the theatrical people who shared their talents with us in 2022. I encourage everyone to continue to support the arts as we look forward to another great year of entertainment in 2023.

The 2022 Heartstrings Award Winners are:

Most Meaningful Performance in a Female Leading Role in a Musical

Addie Morales – Maria – The Sound of Music – Marriott Theatre

Addie Morales is the very reason that the Heartstrings Awards exist. She was without a doubt the best actress in a musical in the Chicago area for 2022. When I noticed she wasn’t nominated in another awards program, it made me think somebody needs to recognize the brilliance of her performance in Marriott’s The Sound of Music. Morales totally redefined the way Maria could be played in my eyes. She played the role as just barely out of her teen years herself, more of a friend of Captain von Trapp’s children. It made the production amazing. She glowed every moment she was on stage.

Heavy consideration was also given to Madra Thomas for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill at Metropolis Performing Arts Centre and Gabrielle Urbina as Veronica in Heathers the Musical at The Black Box Theatre at McHenry County College.

Most Meaningful Performance in a Male Leading Role in a Musical

Joel Bennett – Officer Lockstock – Urinetown: The Musical – Theatre 121

Joel Bennett is exactly why these salutations are called the Heartstrings Awards – his performance in Urinetown touched the heart. Bennett has long been a vital member of Chicago’s suburban theater community – primarily in McHenry County. This role marked his return to the stage after successfully beating cancer. He received a standing ovation upon his first entrance, and then followed it up with a command performance deserving of the applause.

Most Meaningful Performance in a Female Leading Role in a Play

Sarah Sapperstein – Maggie – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – MadKap Productions

Tennessee Williams is my favorite playwright. And I’ve performed in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opposite an amazing Maggie – one of the best to ever play the role in my humble opinion. So, it takes quiet the actress to impress me with Williams’ classic character of Maggie the Cat. Sarah Sapperstein was the shining star in MadKap Productions’ mounting of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I relished every moment of her performance. It was nuanced. It was poetic. It was tragic. It was heroic. It was moving.

Most Meaningful Performance in a Male Leading Role in a Play

Jamie Ewing – George – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – Elsinore Players

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an epic play with a runtime of over three hours. All dialogue falls upon four actors. New theatre company Elsinore Players made its impressive debut this year with an all-around stellar production. The entire cast was very good, having dedicated over a year of their lives to preparing to bring this intense drama to the stage. Jamie Ewing as the bitter and manipulative George gave a truly mesmerizing performance. I look forward to seeing what Elsinore Players does in the future and what Ewing does with his blossoming film and television career.

Most Meaningful Performance in a Female Supporting Role in a Musical

Lucy Godinez – Maureen – RENT – Porchlight Music Theatre

I have a long history with RENT. In the 1990s I had seven callbacks to play Roger on Broadway. Because I was being considered so seriously, the process also involved seeing multiple productions and discussing character with many of the Broadway and touring cast members. Idina Menzel is such a dynamic performer, she really defined how the role of Maureen would be played throughout the years. Lucy Godinez took the daring move to play Maureen in an entirely different way for Porchlight Music Theatre’s reimagined production of RENT. She made the role her own, in the same way Lou Diamond Phillips reimagined the title role in The King & I. And, damn can that girl sing!

Most Meaningful Performance in a Male Supporting Role in a Musical

Alex Goodrich – Sheriff Matt Warren / George / Prakaxias – It Came from Outer Space – Chicago Shakespeare Theater

It Came from Outer Space is an ensemble musical comedy in which most of the performers play multiple roles. That makes it hard for any one actor to stand out, especially when the talent level in the production on a whole is at a level one could only call “spectacular”. Yet Alex Goodrich managed to pull off the near impossible and shine and sparkle just a few watts more than most of the rest of the actors in Chicago this year.  Goodrich is quickly becoming one of my favorite Chicago-area performers. He’s just fun to watch.

Consideration also went to Eric Lewis as a youthful and vivacious Tom Collins and David Moreland as loner filmmaker Mark in Porchlight Music Theatre’s reimagined production of Jonathan Larson’s RENT. Lewis has a soulful voice that transports the listener to another world. Moreland gives a performance on par with Anthony Rapp and Neil Patrick Harris, two of the best to ever play the role of Mark.

Most Meaningful Performance in a Female Supporting Role in a Play

Trace Gamache – Deirdre – I Hate Hamlet – Elgin Theatre Company

In choosing the criteria for the Heartstrings Awards, whose sole voting authority is me, I wrestled with whether productions I was involved in should be eligible. I decided that while I wouldn’t consider myself for any award, who better to judge the performance of an entertainer than a person who has worked closely with them? Yet those players I have worked with still face an overly hard litmus test. To win, those talented individuals have to be dominantly more moving in their category than the rest of the field. Such is the case with Trace Gamache. It was an honor to play opposite Gamache in I Hate Hamlet. We had many qualified actresses turn in amazing auditions, but we knew within seconds that Trace would be the perfect Deirdre. And she delivered. She totally became the role. I truly doubt I will ever see as good of interpretation of this role.

Strong consideration also went to John Chambers as Emilia Bassano Lanier in The Book of Will at Theater at Edge of Wood. Director Stacey Lind brilliantly cast a man in the role of the Dark Lady in this play about those left behind after William Shakespeare’s death, feeding into theories that this mysterious character might have really been a man. Chambers’ performance was authentic and real and transported me to a world of “what if.”

Most Meaningful Performance in a Male Supporting Role in a Play

Herb Metzler – Richard Burbage – The Book of Will – Theatre at Edge of the Wood

Richard Burbage was the first actor to play the role of Hamlet. He was the lead actor in many of the premiers of Shakespeare’s works. To play the role of Richard Burbage in The Book of Will requires an actor of great dramatic range who is also skilled in the ways of humor – both bawdy and subtle. Although he dies early in the production, Herb Metzler’s Burbage is what set the stage for an all-around brilliant production. An absolutely brilliant performance.

Most Meaningful Performance by a Young Person in a Female Role

Lea Biwer – Susan Waverly – White Christmas – Music Theater Works

I got my start in entertainment as a child actor. It results in an interesting childhood. You are expected to perform with the same level of excellence as adults who have decades of training, and in most cases you are supposed to do it while being cute and endearing. There were a number of strong performers in young female roles in Chicago this year, but high school freshman Lea Biwer was in a class by herself in Music Theater Works’ production of White Christmas. She is an incredible singer, and dazzling dancer, and a thoroughly charismatic actor. I expect big things and look forward to hearing of her continued successes.

Most Meaningful Performance by a Young Person in a Male Role

Elin Joy Seiler – Grover Dill – A Christmas Story, the Musical – Marriott Theatre

The Heartstrings Awards don’t always go to the actor with the biggest part. Since the awards celebrate the emotions the performers stir in the audience, winners can come from any sized role or production. In Marriott Theatre’s production of A Christmas Story, the Musical there are three actors I could easily give the award for Best Young Performer in a Male Role. In the lead role of Ralphie, Kavon Newman carried the bulk of the show and did so with amazing talent. Jaxon Mitchell was also a standout as Ralphie’s friend Flick who famously gets his tongue frozen to a flagpole during recess. Mitchell sang an entire song with his tongue stuck to a pole – an amazing feat. However, it is Elin Joy Seiler from the cast that wins the Heartstrings Award for her performance as Grover Dill. I had no idea that it was not a male actor playing the role until someone pointed it out to me. To accomplish that is incredible; to do so at such a young age and with such a hyper masculine role of one of the school bullies is amazing.

Most Meaningful Direction of a Musical

Scott Weinstein – A Christmas Story, the Musical – Marriott Theatre

With Marriott Theatre’s production of A Christmas Story, the Musical – a mounting I proclaimed ‘the best show you’ll see this holiday season’ in my review – Scott Weinstein proves what a difference a premier level director can make. I had seen A Christmas Story before and had been thoroughly unimpressed. So, when Marriott’s production came up on my review calendar I was not terribly excited, even if it was going to be at one of Chicago’s best theater companies. Within seconds of the opening my indifference was replaced with utter joy. It was amazing! I was completely mesmerized. I loved every minute of it. It was the same script I’d seen performed before. It was the same music I’d heard before. Yet in this case it was one of the most enjoyable entertainment events of the year. A fabulous director can be the difference between a flop and a mega hit.

Considerable consideration also went to Mathew Silar for his direction of Little Shop of Horrors at Citadel Theatre.

Most Meaningful Direction of a Play

Regina Belt-Daniels – I Hate Hamlet – Elgin Theatre Company

With this category I again wrestled with giving the award to a someone I worked with on a project over the many wonderful shows I sat in the audience for. Ultimately the work was so impressive, I couldn’t justify not giving the award for direction of a play to Regina Belt-Daniels. I have had the opportunity to work with some amazing directors, and Regina Belt-Daniels solidified herself as my favorite one with her direction of I Hate Hamlet for Elgin Theatre Company. First of all, she cast the production brilliantly. In addition to myself and Trace Gamache, the cast featured David Gasior, Travis Greuel, Karen Mayberry Greuel, Alison Thomas Hage, and sign language interpreter Andrew Ross – all of whom gave award-worthy performances. Taking that cast from talented individuals to a commanding orchestra of symphonic comedy was Belt-Daniels. It was one of the best productions of my career and Regina Belt-Daniels is the primary reason why. Her value as a director truly comes through in her ability to support, nurture, and guide. She builds the actors up into giving the performances they are capable of.

Most Meaningful Choreography

Alex Sanchez – West Side Story – Marriott Theatre

The iconic original choreography of Jerome Robbins will probably forever be associated with West Side Story. However, nobody wants to see strict imitations of greatness when they go to theater, they want the greatness to have its own flavor. Marriott Theatre regularly seeks out the best directors and choreographers – often importing them to Chicago. Alex Sanchez is a New York based choreographer, but his work is no stranger to Chicago audiences. For West Side Story, Sanchez accomplishes the near impossible – a perfect balance of his own creativity and the prerequisite Robbins’ elements. The inclusion of Anybodys in the Dream Ballet in a feminine way was brilliant. Sanchez repeatedly proves year after year that he is one of the best choreographers in the industry because he doesn’t just put together dance routines, he tells stories and stirs emotions.

Most Meaningful Production of a Musical

It Came from Outer Space – Chicago Shakespeare Theater

It Came from Outer Space was the first of what I hope are many visits to Chicago Shakespeare Theater. This original comedy was a laugh riot. Cut from the same cloth as Little Shop of Horrors, this musical comedy treat takes an old camply sci-fi movie and makes in an even more campy and absolutely hilarious musical. Directed by Laura Braza, the musical featured Christopher Kale Jones, Jaye Ladymore, Alex Goodrich, Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, Ann Delaney, and Sharriese Y. Hamilton as one of the best ensembles of the year. In my review I predicted the show will go move to Off-Broadway in New York. I certainly hope it does.

Most Meaningful Production of a Play

The Roommate – iambe theatre

Comedies face an uphill battle in general entertainment industry “Best” award categories. Right or wrong, a dramatic piece that moves one to tears is often seen as more award worthy than a comedy that makes you giggle. Dark comedy faces an even tougher uphill battle for recognition. I didn’t know much about The Roommate prior to attending iambe theatre’s production at Elgin Art Showcase, but I came away really impressed. The script was good, but it was the production and the theater company that made it great. The direction by Sean Hargadon was top notch. The two actresses in the cast – Doreen Dawson and Shannon Mayhall are both amazingly talented and turned in phenomenal performances. And the iambe theatre production showed you don’t need an elaborate set to make impactful art – it was a testament to the power of strong actresses of a certain age. I applaud young iambe theatre on its ongoing mission and look forward to what they will do next.

Most Meaningful Independent Production

The Princess Strikes Back: One Woman’s Search for the Space Cowboy of her Dreams – Victoria Montalbano (writer/performer)

One of the most rewarding parts of reviewing theater is the opportunity to discover diamonds in the rough – hidden treasures, if you will. The Princess Strikes Back: One Woman’s Search for the Space Cowboy of her Dreams is a brilliant one-woman show written and starring Victoria Montalbano. The script is fresh, funny, introspective, and expertly brought to life. This show is destined for success, so seeing it now has to be comparable to seeing one of the early performances of Lily Tomlin’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (which incidentally won a Tony Award for Tomlin). Be on the lookout for future performances of this touching, funny, and all-around amazing show in 2023 and beyond.

Most Meaningful Alternative Production

The Buttcracker: A Nutcracker Burlesque – Jaq Seifert (creator)

Conceived by Jaq Seifert, The Buttcracker: A Nutcracker Burlesque is an absolutely delightful way to enjoy the traditions of the holidays in a totally creative manner with a fun, adult twist. Like the traditional Nutcracker ballet, The Buttcracker is a story told through dance. In fact, it follows the same storyline as the traditional ballet, but with some added creative flourishes that include some suggestive themes. It also includes an interlude of some of the best burlesque acts you’ll ever have the chance to see – ranging from legends of the industry to new talents taking the art in new and modern directions. The music is fun. The costumes are beautiful. And the performers are fabulous.

Most Meaningful Touring Production

SIX: the Musical – Broadway in Chicago

This rock concert history lesson into the lives of the six wives of England’s King Henry VIII was awesome. SIX: the Musical is a short show, but every second is packed with entertainment intensity. The six vocalists who brought the Broadway touring production to Chicago in 2022 made me feel the emotion in their voices all the way to my toes. I put this production in the same category as West Side Story, RENT, and Hamilton as a show that has revolutionized the Broadway musical. The Chicago company featured: Khaila Wilcoxon, Storm Lever, Jasmine Forsberg, Olivia Donalson, Didi Romero, and Gabriela Carrillo. All I can say about these six amazing talents is WOW!

Most Meaningful New Work

A Christmas Carol (female version) – Jeff Cook (playwright)

Jeff Cook is a creative writer and director who works in both film and video. In 2022, Cook debuted his original interpretation of A Christmas Carol at the historic Woodstock Opera House in the far northwest suburbs of Chicago. He didn’t have a grand budget or big-name stars, but Cook’s A Christmas Carol was a joy to experience because it was such a beautiful expression of the writer’s determination to create a new holiday classic. The idea of a female Scrooge is not entirely new, but usually that is just a gender switch with not much adaptation of the actual elements of the Charles Dickens’ story. Cook, however, has relied on interviews with a number of accomplished women in order to really capture a story of the female experience. And Cook did it brilliantly. With continued revisions, this script has the potential to be a truly great work.

One More Angel in Heaven – Theatre

Frank Roberts, Artistic Director, Music on Stage


Frank Roberts was an actor and director I met in the early 1990s when he was involved in a backstage capacity with a production of West Side Story I was in. Our paths would cross throughout the years. When Frank got started in directing, I lived in another part of the country but was happy to hear of his growing successes in the press and through the grapevine. After I moved to Chicago in the 2000’s, Frank and I discussed me playing Sky in Guys and Dolls under his direction, but the timing never worked out right. I always considered Frank a friend and was always proud to hear of his accomplishments as both an actor and as a director. He had been a guest on my radio show and had enjoyed my performances over the years. Sadly, Frank lost his battle with cancer this year. He was dearly loved by thousands and will be missed, but never forgotten.

One More Angel in Heaven – Dance

Arla Faye Sarley Franchi, Artistic Director, North Shore Dance Center


For decades, Arla Faye Sarley Franchi served as an ambassador of the arts, bringing dance to Chicago. I personally served as an assistant professor of dance to Arla at two colleges and we both served on staff as dance professors at a third college. Later, Arla took over North Shore Dance Center in Skokie, IL and brought me in to run the business side of the company. Together with Arla’s daughters Alisha and Adena and a wonderful staff of teachers, we tripled the size of NSDC in a few short years and built it into a north shore dance powerhouse. Sadly, Arla moved on to the other side of the rainbow in 2022. She will be sorely missed, but her spirit will always live on in the dancers who have trained in the Arla Faye style of dance. North Shore Dance and Theater, an offshoot of NSDC, is still active in Glenview keeping that spirit alive.

Peace. Love. Trust.

Rikki Lee Travolta

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