The Case for Erica Stephan’s First Best Performer Jeff Award

The 2023 Joseph Jefferson Award nominations were announced this week. The awards aim to celebrate the best in Chicagoland professional theatre. There are both Equity and non-equity awards, recognizing union and non-union professional artists, institutions, and their creations.

The awards are an institution in the Chicago entertainment community, and are recognized nationally. I knew very well the prestige of a Jeff Award long before I ever brought my circus to Chicago.

The awards program dates back to an idea in 1968 that evolved into reality in 1969. Non-equity categories were added in 1973.


Great care goes into the nomination and voting process. While I’m not privy to the exact criteria of the Joseph Jefferson Awards Committee, the standards for inclusion on the committee require a documented expertise in theatre and meet annual standards.

When I read this year’s nominations, I was filled with a sense of pride when I saw that Erica Stephan has been nominated for her jaw-dropping performance as Sally Bowles in Porchlight Music Theatre’s stellar production of Cabaret.

Premiering in January, Cabaret was one of the first shows I saw in 2023. By the time the first performance was done, I knew it had set the standard by which all theatre would be judged this year. And that is largely because of Erica Stephan who transformed the iconic role into something all her own.

In my original Life and Times review of this dark and twisted mounting of the Kander and Ebb creation I proclaimed, “Erica Stephan plays Sally Bowles as if the role was written for her and her alone.”


The Porchlight production of Cabaret set the bar for the 2023 theatrical season. As the year has gone on, I have seen some pretty amazing productions.

In terms of sheer spectacle, directorial concept, choreography, and visual achievements Goodman Theatre’s production of The Who’s Tommy is beyond compare. It achieved levels of greatness I didn’t think possible.

I’m not alone in that opinion. It ended up being Goodman Theatre’s most successful production ever and garnered a total of nine Jeff Award nominations. I would be shocked if it doesn’t go t to Broadway, I will be shocked. And, if it does go to Broadway, I would expect Tony Awards for director Des McAnuff and choreographer Lorin Latarro.

McAnuff reimagined Pete Townshend’s brainchild with the same level of brilliance that Tim Burton brought with his cinematic vision of Batman in 1989 or that Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless infused into the reboot of Lost in Space that premiered on Netflix in 2018.

Brought to life by an ensemble of some of the most spectacular triple threats I have had the chance to see assembled in a single cast, the choreography of Latarro is groundbreaking. In my review of Tommy I cite the level of inspiration exhibited by Latarro as on par with the likes of Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse.

Ali Louis Bourzgui starred in the title role in Tommy. He did an excellent job, and the city of Chicago instantly fell in love with him. How could you not? He was the talented, handsome star of the hottest ticket in town.

In past years, Bourzgui would be a near shoo-in for the Best Actor Award. In an admirable acknowledgment of changing times, the Best Actor and Best Actress designations for the Jeff Awards have now evolved into the singular category of Best Performer.

I expect that Bourzgui will win the Best Performer in a Principal Role – Musical Jeff Award honor. He provides a very strong performance in a show that has every quality needed to take home a Best Revival Tony.

When it comes to winning awards, the groundbreaking performance that may deserve award talk depends on being seen and in what context.


I know in the case of my own career, if any of my performances were truly award-worthy on an individual basis, they weren’t necessarily in the shows that were the most widely seen. Nor were they necessarily in the productions with the highest profile co-stars.

When your performance is the highlight of something as great as the Goodman’s Tommy, as Bourzgui’s is, it automatically makes you the front-runner for any awards.

While I understand the reason for choosing to have just one Best Performer Award, I worry that it goes away from the purpose of recognizing all of the best performances in the city. These are evolving times, so I hope the awards also continue to evolve in a way that widens their ability to recognize as many deserving performances as possible.

The format for the Jeff Awards this year pits Bourzgui and Stephan against each other. I expect the halo effect of the overall prestige and notoriety of Tommy will probably carry Bourzgui to the win.


With no disrespect to Bourgui, I would be sadly disappointed. He turned in a great performance as a character, but Stephan created a living breathing person.

Her Sally Bowels existed outside of time and space, in a bubble of perfect creation. Emotions weren’t just displayed, but shown growing from the tiniest seeds. Her songs and dances were an extension of herself. It will likely stand as one of the most mesmerizing individual performances I will ever witness.

I don’t have a vote in the Jeff Awards. If I did, it’s not a secret who I would cast it for.

We won’t know who wins until the votes are tallied, and of course there are many great artists in every category. But no matter who wins any the awards, just getting to this playing field is something to brag to your grandchildren about.

The awards I have won have touched my heart, but are not yet on the scale of a Jeff Award. However, I have had the chance to work with some very decorated and respected artists and have seen firsthand the dedication and hard work needed to get to that level.

I applaud all of the Jeff Award nominees for this year. Your hard work is appreciated, respected, and valued. As my grandmother would always say, “You done good.”

Peace. Love. Trust.

Rikki Lee Travolta

If you’re interested in seeing exactly how Erica Stephan’s performance in Cabaret affected me, please read the original Life and Times review: Erica Stephan’s Sally Bowles in Porchlight ‘Cabaret’ is the Stuff of Legends.

You can also hear my interview with Erica on It’s Showtime with Rikki Lee – the sister podcast to Life and Times: An Interview with Erica Lauren – Star of Porchlight’s ‘Cabaret’.

If you’re interested in reading further about Des McAnuff’s remounting of The Who’s Tommy, please read the original Life and Times review: 30th Anniversary of ‘The Who’s Tommy’ Shatters Reality at Goodman Theatre.

For more reviews visit: Theatre in Chicago – your source for What’s on Stage in the Chicago Area

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