By Chris Jones
12:05 PM CST, November 15, 2012
The Mercury Theater is slated to announce Friday that it will become an Equity-affiliated commercial theater, producing a four-show subscription series of musicals.
On tap for the first season, following the calendar year: "A Grand Night for Singing," "Barnum," "The Color Purple" and the annual holiday production of "The Christmas Schooner."
This will be a major change for the 300-seat venue at 3745 N. Southport Ave., surrounded by restaurants and bars. First opened by Michael Cullen (also behind Cullen's Bar and Grill next door), the Mercury has been a rental venue known for such long-running commercial shows as "Freud's Last Session," which closed Sunday. Like most rental entertainment venues, though, there have been many weeks when the theater sat dark.
L. Walter Stearns, who has easier access to capital than most Chicago theater entrepreneurs, bought the Mercury Theater with the help of investors in 2010 after Cullen was hit with a health and financial crisis. Stearns said this week that he had grown frustrated with merely running a rental facility.
"Instead of the Mercury being a place that people visit once a year," Stearns said, "we want people to come to a season of our own theater."
Hence the new slate of shows, some of which (like the summer run of "Barnum") will be directed by Stearns and some by guest directors. Former Circle Theatre artistic director Kevin Bellie is on tap to direct the opening Richard Rodgers and Hammerstein II revue.
Stearns said the shows, each of which will run for up to 15 weeks, will feature full union casts. Actors will be paid CAT-5 union salaries comparable to Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the big suburban musical houses. Stearns said he thinks he'll be able to attract the city's leading performers, in part because they won't have to drive to the suburbs to go to work. And he argues that audiences will benefit from seeing their work in a much more intimate venue.
Subscriptions are to be priced competitively: A four-show slate will cost around $100, with single tickets in the $39-$59 range. Initially, each production will have its own investors and be formed as a separate LLC enterprise.
I asked Stearns, the former artistic director of the Porchlight Music Theatre, with which this new enterprise now will compete, if he was, in essence, re-creating a Porchlight experience. "Not at all," he said. "What we will be able to do at the Mercury will be completely different."
Stearns has poured money into the once down-at-heel venue, adding new bathrooms, a new box office and greatly expanding the lobby. He also has improved the sound-and-light capabilities inside the theater.
So, will this new enterprise work? Certainly, the cost structure appears high for such a small theater, especially one operating on a for-profit basis. There is no orchestra pit or fly space, making big musicals challenging to stage. And, of course, the quality of the shows remains to be seen.
Then again, there is a relative paucity of musical companies in the city, the Mercury has one of the best locations in town, and it has proved itself as a commercial venue on numerous occasions.
In a neighborhood filled with families, "Barnum" is a savvy choice for summer. And "The Color Purple" has not been seen in Chicago since the last visit of the touring version of Gary Griffin's original Broadway production. "The Christmas Schooner" did huge business at the Mercury last year, and looks set for a solid seasonal repeat, especially since its prices compare favorably with other, longer established holiday attractions.
Stearns said he was not ruling out doing plays in the future or even partnering with other producers. The main goal, he said, is to keep the Mercury lit with quality, Chicago-originating entertainment, six nights a week, 52 weeks a year. "This will be an exciting experiment," he said.
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