Theater standouts earn Heartstrings Awards

Crystal Lake’s McHenry County College among honorees

"Frankenstein" production of McHenry County College 2023

They say maturity comes with age. I personally don’t think it’s quite that easy. I think maturity can come with age if you work at it.

While in my 20s, I thought when someone asked my opinion on their theatrical production, it was my job to tell them all the things that were wrong, unaware that honesty presented the wrong way could be hurtful.

In 2016, I started writing theater reviews for the Northwest Herald with a far different approach. As I matured, I realized it’s an awesome feeling both to receive a compliment, and to have given one, knowing it touched the person in a special way.

When I take my seat in the theater, I am rooting for the actors to do great and for the show to be a success. Rather than compare big-money professional productions to community shows produced on a shoestring budget, I look at things like what the director has been able to do with the tools at their disposal.

I have been fortunate that readers have responded to the flavor of my reviews. The response was enough to prompt me to develop the online resource Life and Times ( as another venue to publish even more reviews of the region’s vibrant theater community.

In 2022, Life and Times launched the Heartstrings Awards. My feeling was we didn’t need another “best of” awards program. Instead, the Heartstrings Awards expand the concept of what is “the best” to that which is the most meaningful.

Powerhouse theaters like Goodman, Paramount, Drury Lane, Porchlight, Mercury and Marriott are well-represented in the Heartstrings Awards.

Erica Stephan’s performance in Porchlight Music Theatre’s “Cabaret” was indeed the single best stage performance in Chicago last year, and rightfully earned a Joseph Jefferson Award. She additionally earned a Heartstrings Award because that performance was also the most meaningful.

Because “the best” and “the most meaningful” don’t always overlap, people have embraced the Heartstrings Awards, which were expanded in 2023 to include 57 categories.

There are several theaters and artists in the north and northwest suburbs that stand out in the most recent batch of honorees.

"Prodigal Son" presented by Elgin Theatre Company 2023

Barrington High School student Alexander Garcia was a standout in Elgin Theatre Company’s production of “Prodigal Son.” I started acting as a child. I know full well the pressure of carrying a show at night, while toiling with school and family obligations the rest of the day. Garcia turned in a whopper of a great performance in a very difficult role. He has some really great instincts that earned the award for Most Meaningful Performance by a Young Person in a Male Role.

The corresponding award for female went to Elin Joy Seiler for her performance as Baby June in Marriott Theatre’s production of “Gypsy.” Marriott routinely produces some of the highest-quality work in the region. For someone so young to hold their own on a platform of this level requires them to function in an adult’s world – which is not always easy.

Both Garcia and Seiler have the potential for lifelong careers in entertainment, if they choose. But whatever path they select, among their memories will be turning in wickedly good performances and earning an award for their effort.

Emma Grace Bailey dances the role of Winter in an adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" at Metropolis 2023

Emma Grace Bailey was named Most Meaningful Featured Dancer. Directed by Brendan Ragan, with choreography by Kaity Paschetto, Bailey beautifully created a new role in the lore of “A Christmas Carol” – a dancing sprite named Winter, who guides the audience through the emotional twists and turns of the Dickens classic at Metropolis Performing Arts Centre.

Metropolis also provided the stage for the award-winning performances of Leah Brock and Will Leonard. Brock was acknowledged with the Most Meaningful Cameo in a Female Role - Musical as the character Sarah’s Friend in “Ragtime.” Leonard took home the award for Most Meaningful Standout Ensemble Member in a Male Role in “The Addams Family.”

In addition to recognizing individual performers, the Heartstrings Awards also celebrate the overall work of theater companies. The iambe theatre in Elgin earned the award for Most Meaningful Ensemble Performance - Play for “Into the Breeches.” Metropolis took home the award for Most Meaningful Ensemble Performance - Musical for “Ragtime.” The Black Box Theatre at McHenry County College in Crystal Lake scooped up the award for Most Meaningful Student/Community Production for Jay Geller’s presentation of “Frankenstein” from a riveting new script by Danielle Mohlman. Marriott’s “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” walked away with Most Meaningful Musical.

On the production side, Sean Hargadon won Most Meaningful Direction of a Play (small venue) for “D.O.A.” at Steel Beam Theatre in St. Charles. Tyler Hanes earned Most Meaningful Choreography (medium-sized venue) for Marriott Theatre’s “Damn Yankees.”

A true highlight of the 2023 Heartstrings Awards has to be in recognizing the brilliant career of Madeline Franklin with the Lifetime Achievement Award. Her contributions to the theater world are too numerous to name. She most recently represented Elgin Theatre Company and Freemont Theatre Company, but she has a career that spans decades and has touched many lives and companies. This award year marked Franklin’s announcement of her retirement. She made a difference – and that’s what being meaningful is all about.

And in memoriam, we honor special individuals with the One More Angel in Heaven declaration. In 2023, the Chicago theater community lost a treasured member in Richard Pahl. In addition to being a celebrated actor and director, Pahl served on the board for Elgin Theatre Company, was a founding member of The Dennis Taylor Scholarship Foundation for the Performing Arts, and spent two terms on the Elgin Cultural Arts Commission. He will be missed.

Here’s a breakdown of awards by theater: 4 Chairs Theatre (1), Annoyance Theatre (1), Babes with Blades (1), Chicago Shakespeare Theater (1), Citadel Theatre (3), Court Theatre (1), Drury Lane (2), Edge of the Wood (1), Elgin Theatre Company (1), Goodman Theatre (3), iambe theatre ensemble (1), Invictus Theatre Company (1), Jim Henson Company/iTheatrics (1), Kokandy Productions (2), Marriott Theatre (3), Mercury Theater (2), Metropolis Performing Arts Centre (4), Music Theater Works (2), Northlight Theatre (2), Paramount Theatre/Copley Theatre (4), Porchlight Music Theatre (1), Redtwist Theatre (2), Skokie Theatre/MadKap Productions (2), Steel Beam Theatre (1) The Artistic Home (2), The Black Box Theatre at McHenry County College (1), The Factory Theater(4), The Second City (1), Theatre Wit (1), TimeLine Theatre (2), and Writers Theatre (3). The full list of winners and a personal explanation behind the reason for their win is available at

• Rikki Lee Travolta is an award-winning creative talent with a background in theater, film, television, music and literature. He next can be seen in “Love Letters” in a special limited engagement fundraiser for Steel Beam Theatre in St. Charles from Feb. 23 to March 3.