Happy New Year. Been off the grid? Let's get you caught up with various prospects and developments in Chicago theater.
The last couple of weeks of 2012 produced a slew of fascinating developments. A little production titled "The Book of Mormon" opened at the Bank of America Theatre, with just a few bucks in its promotional budget. So far, the hit musical has sold virtually every seat on offer, many at never-seen-in-Chicago prices. A new block of tickets was released last week; the Chicago production now is selling through Sept. 8. I cannot imagine this production is going anywhere before at least January 2014, given how fast tickets are disappearing for the summer dates. And what happens next January? It's impossible to say at this point. But there is no way "Mormon" will stay if demand slows; there's too much interest elsewhere. Right now, it's standing room only for the missionary boys.
The other sold-out show in Chicago is the Mary-Arrchie Theatre's magnificent production of "The Glass Menagerie." After saying at first that the show, directed by and starring Hans Fleischmann, could not be extended due to the actors' schedules, the venerable fringe theater changed its mind and added performances through Feb. 17. It promptly sold out all tickets to those new shows (and, to its credit, Mary-Arrchie did not raise its ticket prices). So will there be a further extension? Mary-Arrchie has yet to say. But something must happen with this magnificent little production.
So what new spaces are we going to see in 2013? If all goes well, Griffin Theatre will open its new venue in Andersonville, which should secure the long-term future of this essential Chicago company. Steppenwolf won't be finished with its planned additions and renovations this year, of course, but you can expect to see an announcement of what exactly this most famous of Chicago theaters plans to do with its expanded footprint on Chicago's North Side. This will be, for sure, a very important cultural project in Chicago.
One space appears to be coming back to life. After first announcing that it planned to mothball the Arie Crown Theater (2301 S. Lake Shore Drive), the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority rented out the facility to the touring production of "Fela!" (This latest visit of the Broadway hit, which now features Michelle Williams, is not a Broadway in Chicago booking; performances are Feb. 19-23, and tickets are available at ticketmaster.com and the Arie Crown box office.) I've long been of the view that, since its renovations, the Arie Crown is a far better space for shows than many people think. One has to deal with the surroundings, which aren't exactly urbane and user-friendly, but the theater itself is a quite decent place to see a big musical. I'm glad it's back.
As was the case in 2012, the commercial scene is relatively quiet. With the Mercury Theater now turning to self-production, "Million Dollar Quartet" showing no signs whatsoever of closing at the Apollo Theater and Blue Man Group still occupying the Briar Street Theatre, there is a chronic lack of available spaces. Although details remain sketchy, it appears that Hershey Felder, the actor-pianist-entrepreneur known for his solo biographies of great composers, plans to produce several shows at the Royal George Theatre in the coming months, essentially taking over the main stage of one of the few rental venues that remain. These upcoming projects include "An American Story for Actor and Orchestra," about Abraham Lincoln (performances begin March 8), and the intriguing prospect of a show about the late Jack Lemmon, created by the actor's son, Christopher. (No dates have been announced.) So will Felder turn himself into a significant producing force in Chicago? That should become clear during the upcoming year.
One hopes the Chicago Commercial Collective, very quiet of late, will announce more shows in coming weeks, per its previously announced mandate to create commercial transfers of worthy productions of Chicago shows. There is also plenty of room for more shows downtown — one hopes that the Broadway Playhouse, which has been busy, can boost the quality of its productions.
One 2013 project has already exceeded expectations: The Second City's sketch-and-music driven collaboration with the Lyric Opera of Chicago (which I haven't seen) proved far more popular than expected, and producers have announced an extended run at the Lyric, following the regular opera season. This project might also have legs in other cities where opera companies are looking to educate audiences and shed any sense of a stuffy image.
You should also keep your eye on the new collaboration between StarKid Productions, which has a fiercely loyal and massive following among its youthful target demographic, and Second City, which now will house regular productions by the group known for its Internet musicals. That could turn into something big.
In Chicago, of course, you just never know. Which is why every new year comes with the whiff of anticipation. There's new talk of the long-rumored arrival of Teatro ZinZanni, the Seattle-based circus/dinner/vaudeville outfit, which has been looking for years to set up a permanent operation somewhere in or near downtown Chicago. That would give us another resident show aimed at visitors, which would be a very good thing as the city builds its bill of cultural fare.
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