News News/Local River North

Riverfront Theater tent opening to host circus, music and other events

Chicago is to have a big new entertainment venue this summer — a 70-foot-tall, 22,000-square-foot tent that will seat as many as 2,500 patrons who will be served up a variety of populist live shows, including tributes to Elton John, Michael Jackson and ABBA, and an adult-oriented circus known as "La Soiree." The tent, dubbed the Riverfront Theater, is being pitched next to the Chicago Tribune Freedom Center, 650 W. Chicago Ave.

Tribune Co., which publishes this newspaper, is a full, revenue-sharing partner in this enterprise, alongside two experienced entertainment entrepreneurs: Robert Butters, a former executive with Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group, and Randy Bloom, who has long produced arena and theatrical tours for the likes of Warner Bros., Nickelodeon, HIT Entertainment and Feld Entertainment. Butters has his own New York-based ticketing operation, allowing both him and his customers to bypass Ticketmaster.

Last summer Butters' New York-based company, And Entertainment, brought a high-tech touring production of "Peter Pan" from London to the same location for a 16-week run as part of a U.S. tour. The Chicago run attracted 110,000 people. The new tent is significantly larger than last year's.

The venue is to be programmed with a variety of short engagements, beginning May 30 with "The Twelve Tenors." That's followed by the ABBA-themed "Dancing Queen" (June 6-24), "Spirit of the Dance" (June 27-July 15), "La Soiree" (July 18-Aug. 5), the Elton John-themed "Rocket Man" (Aug. 8-26) and "Man in the Mirror," aimed at Jackson fans (Sept. 12- 30).

Of those mostly routine shows, "La Soiree" is the centerpiece. It's a highly regarded circus-burlesque-cabaret hybrid that has many acts in common with a show called "La Clique," a big hit in Britain and elsewhere. "Man in the Mirror," which played London's West End and has not been seen in New York or Chicago, is more of a musical than a Jackson tribute.

More shows for the fall are to be announced later. Current plans, pending approval of permits, call for the climate-controlled tent to remain open and active through mid-December, go dark during January and February and then reopen in March for its second season. Broadway in Chicago, a partner in "Peter Pan," is no longer involved with the enterprise that appears likely to be significant new competition for its theaters, especially during the summer.

"It's an opportunity to build another entertainment venue in Chicago," Butters said in an interview. "We think being on the Chicago River is a huge advantage for us, and that this location is increasingly becoming a cultural destination. Whenever you bring entertainment, restaurants, parking and other stimuli for a neighborhood tend to follow."

"This is another way for us to engage with the community," said Haley Carlson, events and sponsorship manager for the Tribune Events Group. "We're going after new revenue streams, but this will also allow us to program the venue with our own events." Such Tribune-affiliated events might include various promotions associated with the Tribune's RedEye newspaper and Chicago magazine, which produces an annual fashion show, among other event-driven enterprises.

Carlson also said the Tribune Events Group intends to keep the riverfront site open to the public on nonperformance days, allowing people to eat and drink in smaller tents and gardens outside. Discussions, she said, have taken place with a variety of promoters in both the theater and music businesses.

Butters said the venue will be available for private bookings and such events as Chicago Ideas Week, which will use the space in October. It can be configured, Butters said, either as proscenium-style or in the round. If the backstage area is not being used and a flat floor is installed, he said, capacity inside the Riverfront Theater would rise to about 3,000 people for lectures and corporate events.

Butters argued that tourists in Michigan Avenue hotels will be able to walk to the venue on a summer night, and he said he will reinstate the water taxi that he used last summer to ferry audiences from Michigan Avenue to the show. Tribune Company is to provide space for a high-profile box office at Tribune Tower, 435 N. Michigan Ave.

"This is just the inaugural season," Butters said, allowing that innovative programming is not part of the first slate, which came together quite late. "In the future, we'd like to start working with Chicago theater companies and help them create major works in this space. We also want to curate this venue and use it to bring performance groups to Chicago from all over the world."

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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