January 5, 2012
Happy new year! So what do we have to look forward to in 2012 in the world of Chicago theater? Let's start with new places to see shows. The first new theater to open in 2012 likely will be the Rivendell Theatre in the Edgewater neighborhood — a signature event for a company that has been itinerant for a remarkable 16 years. Located at 5779 N. Ridge Ave., the new theater (created inside a double storefront that was stripped down to the bare bones) should be ready in February and will feature a 50-seat black box, as well as a lobby, an office and rehearsal space for the long-established company, which focuses on exploring female perspectives on everyday stories.
Meanwhile, Tony Tomaska, the longtime producer of "Tony n' Tina's Wedding" and the former owner of the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, is also working on a new space. Plans remain in flux, but this new venue would be in the Old Town neighborhood and would host commercial attractions, especially those that will use a bar and catering service. No details yet on when this one will open or what the first show will be.
How about high-profile shows? Well, there's no question that the casting of Nathan Lane in Robert Falls' production of "The Iceman Cometh" will get national attention and, should it be a success, be a candidate for the next Chicago-to-Broadway transfer.
So, for different reasons, will the Lookingglass Theatre Company production of "Cascabel," a circus-and-food entertainment that was conceived by Tony Hernandez and will star the chef Rick Bayless. At a news conference in September, Bayless said he plans to make food a "main character" in the show. If it all goes as planned (and note that shows involving food and relatively small numbers of seats are notoriously expensive affairs to produce, especially when the theater does not have a kitchen), I think we'll see other celebrity chefs jumping in front of the footlights. Ideally, one of these shows would become a long-running, visitor-friendly attraction. But "Cascabel" will be a fascinating test of the Chicago market for a very upscale dinner show.
And then there is "The Book of Mormon," which will open its Chicago production in December and test the market once again for a long-running, dedicated Chicago company of a hit Broadway show. Assuming the show is done right — and everyone involved has pledged to be hands-on in its gestation— it's hard to see how this could be a bad bet, especially given the quality of the show and the potency of the South Park brand. More than any other show, "The Book of Mormon" has the ability to attract crowds of tourists to the Loop. There's an enormous demand to see this show, and folks may as well come here rather than go to Broadway.
But are we talking 18 months or four years? Time will tell.
I think there also will be some yet-to-be-announced pre-Broadway tryouts in Chicago this year, given that the Illinois legislature has now passed a modest tax incentive to attract producers looking for a pre-Broadway run. But until they tour "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" (and they will, believe me, the new version is better than you think), it's hard to think of another show on Broadway that could sustain a long Chicago engagement — another way to get state support. It will be interesting to see how all of this affects the national trend of starting musicals at resident theaters — the Goodman has at least three such shows on its books, and at least one is likely to show up in the fall.
So what else will be worth watching in 2012?
Well, we'll get a clearer sense of the kind of work artistic director Chay Yew wants to do at Victory Gardens. We'll find out if the Paramount Theatre in Aurora can maintain its initial burst of producing excellence. We'll get to see David Cromer direct "Rent" at American Theater Company — that might go somewhere. So might the new version of "The Invisible Man," slated for the Court Theatre. I suspect the upcoming Charles Newell take on "Angels in America" will sell out quickly; be warned. And I am hoping we might hear of a firm plan to make the Steppenwolf Theatre a more audience-friendly place to hang out, even as it takes its revival of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" to Broadway this fall.
Will any new talents break out? Keep your eye on Michael Mahler, whose new musical "Hero," about a comic book artist, is slated for the summer at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, and who forged a beautiful score for the Provision Theatre Company's "The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey." But in Chicago, things break out at any time, in any place. And you gotta show up to see it.
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